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Mockumentary of poker tournaments hits the jackpot with great comedic performances

Woody Harrelson as "One-Eyed Jack" in The Grand.

With the success of Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries, it seems filmmakers out there are applying the style to every subject one can think of. Just recently, it’s been done with teachers in “Chalk,” which debuted at the Gen Art film festival to some acclaim. Now showing in the Tribeca Film Festival, “The Grand,” applies the style to professional poker competitions.

“The Grand” benefits in some cases from bigger name and better known performers than “Chalk,” yet in other cases those familiar faces detract from what it’s aiming for -- as though they tried to stuff too many name cast members into the movie.

Where “Chalk” stayed focused on character but didn’t always keep the characters compelling, “The Grand” manages for the most part to keep the characters dancing on a comedic edge, except for about 20 minutes in the latter part of the movie where it gets too caught up in the mechanics of who will win or lose the titular poker tournament.

The real standouts in “The Grand” are SNL’s Chris Parnell in a totally committed and unflinching hilarious turn as Harold Melvin a semi-autistic misfit with no social skills who delivers dead-eyed assessments of the other players and monologues about why he loves the sci-fi movie “Dune.” And who knew serious art film director Werner Herzog could be so hilarious as intense player “The German,” out to destroy all competition in his path, as he not so gently strokes a nervous rabbit always on his lap.

The cast also features eccentric turns by Ray Romano, as lightning-struck and addled husband to Cheryl Hines’ tournament pro, and David Cross as Hines’ twin brother, who’s been saddled with an inferiority complex by their dad, comedian and real poker pro Gabe Kaplan. The nominal star of the movie is Woody Harrelson, whose quest to save his rundown old time casino from the clutches of Michael McKean’s Steve Wynn-like developer drives the plot. And McKean, a veteran of the Guest movies, is funny in a Spinal Tap like mode as he pursues his dream of a twin tower casino that he claims is all one room that will rent for $1 million a night.

Where the movie does get overstuffed though is with Jason Alexander’s one-scene cameo as a Middle Eastern player who annoys Herzog, and Hank Azaria as the leader of the “Bust You Crew” of players. They aren’t given much worthy of their talents to do, and should have been cut out of the film since their material didn’t really add anything to it. In fact more minor players, like the duo of TV poker tournament announcers end up being funnier than them.

Overall though “The Grand” is definitely recommended, for a lot of great character-based laughs, and generally is a more inspired choice among the burgeoning mockumentary field.




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