Losing on the River

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Posted March 20, 2008 in Film

If Jim Morrison faked his own death and was reborn in Vegas as the Lounge Lizard King, he’d be an awful lot like Woody Harrelson’s Jack Faro. Wild-sideburned and draped in beads, Jack’s done every drug from crack to peyote. When not incapacitated, he’s crossed off even more women with 74 wives notched on his belt, including a quickie to the Runaway Bride. Jack moved into his rehab center after failing to get past Step One. With eleven steps left he’s about to lose his grandpa’s casino The Golden Nugget, a bequeathment to Jack that was Lucky Faro’s “last and worst bet he ever made,” says L.B.J. Deuce Fairbanks (Dennis Farina), a Sin City fixture mourning the good old days when you could pick up a 13-year-old at the local brothel. (“The downfall of Vegas was the day they let culottes into the casino,” he gripes.)  

It’s generous to call writer-director Zak Penn’s ensemble comedy well-written; rather, he’s assembled an all-star improv cast and set them loose on Nevada with only a rough character sketch and plot outline. To save his family’s legacy from a developer (Michael McKean) who’s the apotheosis of New Vegas—he wants to replace the casino with a one-bedroom, $1 million a night luxury hotel—Jack’s fighting to win the $10 million dollar jackpot at his own Golden Nugget poker tournament. His challengers include Deuce, mouth-breathing automaton geek Harold Melvin (Chris Parnell), corn-fed sap Andy Andrews (Richard Kind flashing his dim-bulb grin), and competitive Schwartzman siblings Lainie (Cheryl Hines) and Larry (David Cross). Also playing are Werner Herzog as a blood-drinking German, mysterious Dr. Yakov Achmed (Jason Alexander), and a host of other oddballs. 

Penn and his hilarious team love setting up their characters, and we love watching them. Herzog parodies himself as a snob of the macabre. On his habit for draining the life out of bunnies, he sneers “coffee is the beverage of the cowards.” Kind gets as much mileage as possible from his amateur player who only took up online poker when he got confused ordering fireplace equipment, while the vile Parnell delights in loathing his doting mother (Estelle Harris). Hines and Cross form as much of an emotional core as Penn’s willing to tolerate as a brother and sister estranged by their cruel childhood. (Dad Gabe Kaplan thought competition bred winners; someone always went to bed hungry.)  Cross crumples under the weight of his dad’s low expectations while Hines’ passive-aggressive husband Ray Romano tries to be more supportive than her biological family, but is so rattled by her card-slanging success he escapes into fantasy football.  

The Grand is a full house funnier than last year’s For Your Consideration—the jokes are delivered straight only to snake around and have you laughing several beats later. But once the game is underway, the humor plateaus before going into freefall and the final stretch isn’t tense enough to hold our interest. It’s as if Penn only wanted to create his world, not explore it, and failing that he axes the players as quickly as possible as though he’s bored and ready for the credits. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory had a near-identical structure, however the eliminations of Augustus Gloop and Veruca Salt had a circular irony. Oddly, here none of the lost hands even matches the character who plays it. Parnell’s disciplined brainiac, for example, breaks his formula and bets everything on a lukewarm hand. The game becomes random and meaningless and the improv comedy, having been given too much rein, follows suit. 


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