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'The Grand' holds special appeal for poker geeks (***)

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Posted: Friday, June 6, 2008 10:00 pm

Part of me wants to complain that there aren't more poker movies, but I also recognize that the game isn't exactly cinematic.

Provided you're not watching a bunch of drunk morons giggling as they constantly declare "All in!", it's not the most fast-paced entertainment around, and the fascinating nuances are usually lost on people unless they're students of the game. However, the "sport" of poker does lend itself pretty easily to parody, and "The Grand," a little-seen comedy from earlier this year that is coming to DVD on Tuesday, is as funny a satire of the poker scene as we're likely to see.

Structured in the style of a Christopher Guest documentary - and featuring some of Guest's regular players - the movie follows a handful of competitors in a high-stakes, winner-take-all poker tournament. The usual archetypes are all present: the drug-addled, Stu Unger-esque degenerate (Woody Harrelson); the token woman who wants to play with the big boys (Cheryl Hines, channeling poker pro Annie Duke); the crusty old-timer who longs for the days of the old Las Vegas (Dennis Farina as a Doyle Brunson stand-in); and the crazy, wild-card foreigner (played by German filmmaker Werner Herzog in the most awesomely random stunt casting of this year and many others) who, before playing poker, kills small animals to absorb their invigorating life force.

After a round of backstories, the final six players make their way to the final table, which writer/director Zak Penn wisely stages as an actual poker tournament without a predetermined outcome. It's an interesting experiment, and it pays off. (Things get a little embarrassing for Farina, who clearly sucks at poker, but at least Harrelson gets to show off some surprising analytical skills.) This approach allows the finale to unfold in a realistic fashion, compared to the typically illogical, scripted poker action that preceded the final table.

"The Grand" is recommended for fans of mockumentaries, but holds special appeal for poker geeks. Filled with cameos by poker celebs from Brunson to Phil Hellmuth, Jr. and even the underrated Phil Gordon (who has the distinction of delivering the movie's funniest line), the film often feels like a 100-minute inside joke for viewers who are well-versed in reverse-implied odds and can spot Antonio Esfandiari's face in a crowd. That's a special thing indeed, but the film doesn't pander to the nerds at the expense of alienating more casual viewers, who can still appreciate the movie's often amusing non-sequitur humor.

"The Grand" is rated R for profanity and drug use.

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