Thursday, March 20, 2008

Poker Movies: The Grand

Is "The Grand" a good poker movie? Is any cheating portrayed?

The poker world certainly needs a good movie. In recent times there has been nothing but trash. The last good poker movie was "Rounders," but since then we've been hit by duds like "Lucky You," which really was ridiculous, especially that scene with Eric Bana winning that "pokertriathlon" bet on the golf course. And as far as fictitious poker on TV goes, the ESPN series "Tilt" was also horrible.

Good News: The Grand is not bad!

Whereas prior poker movies took the poker world very seriously, finally we have a movie with a tongue-in-cheek portrayal of poker. In fact, I'd call it and out and out "mockumentary," much in the fashion of Christopher Guest movies. It does have a real poker feel to it, however, and is shot fast, loose and from the hip, and like Guest's movies takes a gonzo-style, documentary approach. From what I've heard there's a lot of ad-libbing along the way, which makes for some good laughs even if the ending is somewhat predictable.

The story unfolds at "The Grand", a World Series-style poker tournament with a winner-take-all $10 million first prize. Jack Faro (Woody Harrelson) inherits the "Rabbit's Foot" casino in downtown Las Vegas from his grandfather, and runs it into the ground while concurrently racking up numerous failed marriages and countless stints in rehab.

One thing The Grand does well is portray the poker world and its characters, certainly leaving none of their zany idiosyncrasies to the imagination. In fact, if you follow the poker circuits with an observant eye, you will pick out some of the players whose characteristics are loosely or less loosely depicted here.

The best and most entertaining character in the movie is Harold Melvin (Chris Parnell), a monotone, socially maladjusted 40-year-old "math guy" who still lives with his mother. Melvin spits out numbers and criticism at other players while reciting his poker mantra, adapted from the 1980s sci-fi thriller "Dune." In one poker hand, Melvin scolds Daniel Negreanu about his play, snapping, "You should have moved in when your stack still meant something."

Besides Negreanu, there are numerous appearances of real-life pro poker players and poker-playing celebrities. Of course there's Doyle Brunson, along with Phil Hellmuth, Phil (the Unabomber) Laak, Antonio Esfandiari, Shannon Elizabeth, Jason Alexander, Hank Azaria, and Robert Thompson in his role as the tournament director. Player/author Phil Gordon plays a TV poker analyst and well-known director Brett Ratner plays "Sob Story" Barry Blausteen, a player who tries to get his opponents to fold by telling them sad tales such as, "My mother has three months to live."

A lot of poker minutiae and inside jokes permeate the movie. The logo on the hat worn by casino titan Stave Lavish (Michael McKean) is nearly identical to a Wynn logo. Jack Faro's grandfather is based on the famed Horseshoe owner and legend, Benny Binion, complete with the big fur coat and cowboy hat.

And yes, there is a cheating element! I'm glad that the director brought it to light in the movie as cheating is such a MAJOR part of poker, which many poker enthusiasts don't want to admit. It comes at the best time of the movie, the end, and although I won't tell you exactly what move was pulled off, I will say that it is not one of my top 10 poker scams!

Overall, The Grand is clearly the best poker movie since Rounders. Another poker movie on the horizon is "Deal" starring Burt Reynolds. The chatter I've heard about it so far is lots of thumbs-down. I will be reviewing that movie shortly.