IN A perfect world, director Zak Penn's high-stakes poker mockumentary The Grand would have hit theaters a few years ago, before the Texas hold 'em boom started to go bust. Participation at the 2007 World Series of Poker dropped by 28% from the year before; online poker growth has slowed; and Bravo's Celebrity Poker Showdown has been off the air for two years. The Grand is so 2006—which might not be great for its box office but isn't necessarily a bad thing for the audience.
Penn's film is ostensibly about a loser named Jack Faro (played by Woody Harrelson) and the $10 million hold 'em event that could get him out of enormous debt. But the plot is secondary; The Grand is sharpest when it's probing—and affectionately puncturing—the self-important archetypes of the poker subculture. There's the statistics-spewing savant, played by Saturday Night Live alum Chris Parnell, and the high-strung, tantrum-prone rounder, played by David Cross. Dennis Farina is also amusing as hardass card shark Deuce Fairbanks, who sneers that Las Vegas's downfall came "the day they let people wear culottes into the casinos."
Penn says that much of the film, including the 35-minute final-table scene, was unscripted, and the improv results are mixed. (In one all-too-easy joke, Farina riffs on the silly names poker players concoct for hands: a " San Francisco bus boy" is queens and treys.) Even in its wittiest moments, The Grand requires a familiarity with real, televised poker and its cast of characters. Cross's hothead seems to be based on his own snarky appearances on CPS, and it helps to know that his character, the brother of a female poker star, is a send-up of Howard Lederer and his sister Annie Duke. For a poker outsider, it can be a lot to decipher, like reading a 3--5 off-suit against a rainbow 10-9-2-4 before the river. But for those in the know, watching The Grand will be like living 2006 all over again.
The Pop Culture Grid
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