Whether it's risen from the death of scripted comedy, the flowering of sketch performers, or some combination of the two, improvisation has become the dominant form of film comedy, and it's making for uneasy viewing. Unmoored from the structure and discipline of farce or screwball, improv comedies like Zak Penn's The Grand rely heavily on their actors to generate something out of virtually nothing, which can be liberating—or in this case, mostly haphazard and sloppy. With apologies due to Christopher Guest mockumentaries like Waiting For Guffman and Best In Show—guest player Michael McKean even turns up, almost for ceremonial purposes—Penn's poker comedy is a light-hearted tease on the math geeks, old-school sharks, Internet donkeys, and random yahoos that turn up on ESPN poker broadcasts. But typical of bad improv, the inmates take over the asylum, leaving a movie that's little more than a loose, wildly uneven assemblage of individual comedic shtick.
Unlike other poker movies of late, The Grand at least knows the game well enough to skewer it, though there probably isn't a serious player in the world who would ante up for the film's big "winner take all" $10 million tournament. (Nothing for second place? Really?) In and out of rehab for innumerable abuses, and married briefly to about 70 different woman, Woody Harrelson goes into the tournament with the most at stake, having sent the long-in-the-tooth casino he inherited into deep debt. His main competitors include brother-sister pros Cheryl Hines and David Cross, who are constantly battling for the approval of father Gabe Kaplan; socially retarded math nerd Chris Parnell; grizzled old-timer Dennis Farina; and Richard Kind, a dopey amateur who accidentally qualified for the tournament online while doing a search for "fireplace poker."
Any movie that finds room for Werner Herzog (as "The German," a card sharp who gets his energy from killing small animals) can't be all bad, and The Grand does flicker with random bits of inspiration. A chipmunk-free Cross is particularly funny as an obnoxious, Phil Hellmuth-ian lout who intimidates his opponents by stalking the table like a jungle cat, or donning unexpected apparel, like oversized novelty glasses or a burka. Kind does fine work, too, as the sort of giddy fool who can fell giants through sheer dumb luck. But too much of The Grand is eaten up by thin conceits that go nowhere, like Ray Romano's turn as a henpecked husband who spends his time thinking up new catchphrases and high-five variations, or McKean's insistence on wearing a hardhat next to scale models of a high-rise hotel. The overall impression is of a bunch of individual planets that aren't in the same orbit.