The Grand Zak Penn

The Grand Zak Penn
Zak Penn’s The Grand is a mockumentary in the Christopher Guest tradition. It’s Penn’s second directorial outing, after Incident At Loch Ness, and he’s already proving to be quite adept at the genre, even if he isn’t quite at Guest’s level yet. This time, Penn aims his sights on competitive poker (a world of inflated egos that’s ripe for parody) and milks it for all it’s worth.

This type of movie is only as good as the actors and fortunately Penn stacked the deck with a group of veteran improvisers who wring laughs out of every scene. The main cast is comprised of Woody Harrelson’s debt- and drug-riddled casino owner, Dennis Farina’s relic from mob-infested ’70s Vegas, Cheryl Hines and David Cross’s feuding poker siblings, Richard Kind’s clueless amateur and SNL alumnus Chris Parnel’s autistic card counter.

Michael McKean, Hank Azaria, Jason Alexander and Ray Romano all show up in small roles to steal scenes and keep the stars on their A game. And as if that weren’t enough, Penn also throws legendary German director Werner Herzog into the mix in an unforgettable role as an insane gambler who must kill an animal every day to feel alive.

The only problem with the movie is that the climax focuses more on poker than comedy. This is primarily because the director had his cast play the final game for real. The decision undoubtedly made filming more exciting but it hurts the movie by dropping the laugh count at the exact moment that it should be peaking.

A sentimental resolution to Cross and Hines’s family subplot is also a bit of a let down, but these are both minor complaints. Penn’s only real ambition for this project was to make people laugh and on that level he delivers. The Grand is a modest success with enough memorable moments to suggest that Penn could have a truly great comedy in him. (Anchor Bay)