Director Zak Penn has taken a page from Christopher Guest’s Best in Show playbook and made an improvised film set in the world of a high stakes poker tournament at the Rabbit’s Foot Hotel in Las Vegas.
Woody Harrelson is One Eyed Jack Faro, a drug-addled heir to a Las Vegas casino. He has squandered his inheritance—on bad investments like a theme hotel/casino based on the Chicago Fire and wild partying—now may lose the business his father built up from nothing. To earn some desperately needed money he enters a tourney playing opposite a cast of characters that include Werner Herzog as a sadistic cardsharp called The German; Dennis Farina as a Vegas old-timer who longs for the days when the mob ran Sin City; Yakov Achmed (Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander), a man of undetermined ethnicity, and Cheryl Hines and David Cross as brother-and-sister competitors with an overbearing father, Seth Schwartzman (Gabe Kaplan).
Working from a script that was only 29 pages long, more a treatment really than a script, Penn determined the course of the action by staging a fake Las Vegas poker championship with the actors, in character, playing a real poker match up to determine the winner. It’s not quite as exciting as the Texas Hold’ Em shows that are all over television these days, but it is much funnier.
Among the highlights are Herzog’s delightfully unhinged performance as a man who needs “to kill something each day” and travels with a menagerie of small animals, and Ray Romano as the insecure husband of the Hines character but this is Harrelson’s movie.
His strange portrayal of Jack Faro brings to mind his delightfully off kilter turn as Woody on Cheers. He has an easy-going charm and a way with a line that makes even the more outrageous moments of this story seem almost plausible.
The Grand doesn’t quite measure up the Christopher Guest’s films—he’s the master at balancing the silly with the poignant—but it will work just fine as a stop gap while the master works on his next release.