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Movie Review

A mockumentary that's just bluffing

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / April 4, 2008

"The Grand" is a defective poker comedy where the poker is a lot more interesting than the people playing it. But the players are all played by people of interest. If Woody Harrelson, Cheryl Hines, Dennis Farina, Richard Kind, David Cross, and Chris Parnell were having a cafeteria lunch together, you'd want a seat at that table. When they're sitting around the tables in this movie, it's a different story. They have nothing entertaining to do, even if they seem self-amused at this movie's conceit: a mockumentary about big-stakes poker.

As comedy it's flat. As documentary it's unfocused. As mockumentary it's passe. The mania for poker has come and ebbed. So the filmmakers (the Hollywood screenwriter Zak Penn directed and co-wrote with Matt Bierman) take a different angle by trying to build a carnival out of all the personalities on display. The film is littered with television actors who've made you laugh before - a very tan Ray Romano, an even tanner Jason Alexander (regrettably playing Middle Eastern), and Estelle Harris, who played Alexander's mother on "Seinfeld" - and their determination to make you giggle can be as tedious as the movie. It's nice to see Judy Greer, who really could upset Jennifer Aniston and Lisa Kudrow in a Teri Garr contest. Even so, it's aggravating watching her put together a sweet, complicated character amid so much flotsam and filler. Judy, pace yourself!

I guessed Hank Azaria would pop up, and there he was. Michael McKean, too, although it must have been hard going from the penthouse of those fake Christopher Guest documentaries to the basement of "The Grand." The movie never hits on a fresh idea. Too many scenes appear to be waiting for comedy to spring from improvisation, like every interaction between games. Hines, Kind, and Parnell are fun to watch, especially the underrated Parnell, who really appears to be going for something clever as an ingenious, sociologically insensitive man-child. He's not always funny, but he's always interesting. Even better, he's playing a guy named Harold Melvin who's nothing like the Harold Melvin of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes.

A satire of the poker world is ultimately redundant. Whenever I catch a game on ESPN2, the ridiculous seriousness seems to mock itself. The movie's one true surprise is the appearance of the filmmaker Werner Herzog, who already mocked himself with a cherry on top in Penn's previous film, the far more inspired "Incident at Loch Ness" (2004). Predictably enough, in "The Grand," Herzog plays a sadist card shark called The German. Less predictably, he's very sexy. And he's having enough fun with his punisher shtick to make you sad when he exits. You want to see the shark feed - even on all this movie's empty calories.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movies/blog.

The Grand

Directed by: Zak Penn

Written by: Penn and Matt Bierman

Starring: Woody Harrelson, Cheryl Hines, Dennis Farina, Richard Kind, David Cross, and Chris Parnell

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 104 minutes

Rated: R (language and some drug content)

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