Dir: Zak Penn. US. 2006. 95mins
If you hesitated to believe that gambling casinos were a magnet for misfits, The Grand, an improvised ensemble comedy set at a high-stakes poker tournament in Las Vegas, will confirm that impression. Zak Penn's new film is a high-stakes vaudeville Love Boat with more stars than a Global Warming benefit.

The improvised movie, a new generation's twist on the Christopher Guest approach, seems targeted to reach a number of audiences: gambling and poker enthusiasts, Vegas kitsch aesthetes, and fans of the members of its star-glutted cast. Harrelson's character should help The Grand reach the under-30 market, and the gag-filled vaudeville feel should ensure for repeat home video viewing.

While not quite at the level of football, poker is still a global game and Las Vegas is an international mecca, which could mean strong foreign interest.

There's not much of a story here. Harrelson is One-Eyed Jack Faro, a likeable stoner and drunk, and the grandson of a casino owner. He's fighting to win the poker championship and keep the gambling house that his family built from falling into the hands of Steve Lavisch (McKean), who intends to demolish it and construct a mega-hotel on its ruins.

Jack has managed to maintain a commitment to a family tradition while losing most of his brain cells. He's also been married more than 70 times, a Vegas record. He seems to run into an ex at every bar.

Like Jack, each character at the table is after more than a cash windfall, although the greed for cash certainly matters. Add to the mix Cheyl Hines and David Cross, who form a Long Island brother-sister duo as Lainie and Larry Schwartzman, plus Gabe Kaplan, as their dyspeptic father who feels unappreciated.

As Lainie's husband, Ray Romano is the family referee. Werner Herzog (who worked with Penn in Incident At Loch Ness) is The German, a stern and stolid player with two bodyguards.

Chris Parnell plays a gambling savant idiot who lives with his mother, and Dennis Farina is a champion who wants to get his crown back. Each one has a quirky back-story.

In directing this shake-well-and-serve Vegas cocktail, Zach Penn (who is credited as screenwriter, along with Matt Bierman) is adept at keeping multiple stories in play in this tightly-edited film.

In gambling, as in comedy, most of these characters are losers, and improvisation tends to bring out their oddities. Fewer than half the jokes really deliver, but Penn and his cast make up for that with characters who, even if they're not so appealing, hold our interest with their neuroses.

Comparisons will be made to the work of Robert Altman, as well as to that of Christopher Guest, but the sheer number of stars in The Grand makes you think back to Stanley Kramer's 1963 ensemble road spectacle, It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World, in which Buddy Hackett, Terry-Thomas, Milton Berle, Ethel Merman and what seemed to be the rest of Hollywood raced to the location of a buried treasure.

The Grand isn't up to that standard, yet with any dream team cast, if you don't like what's on the screen, just wait a minute - the next vignette will be a few moments away.

Kaplan is sourly realistic as the father whom his gambler children can't please. As Steve Lavisch, the vain Vegas impresario with an edifice complex - the gimmick of the vast new palace that he wants to build is that it has just one room - Michael McKean takes a savvy shot at magnate Steve Wynn's obsession with architecture. Harrelson is nothing if not the kind of loser that woman after woman falls for.

Shot at the Golden Nugget in Vegas, cinematographer Anthony Hardwick and production designer Shepherd Frankel haven't given The Grand a look that's much different than other glittery and kitschy Vegas films, although costume designer Valerie Laven-Cooper certainly has, capturing the tawdry look that differentiates each character.

Production companies/backers
Insomnia Media Group
Eleven Eleven Films

Endeavor Independent

Brett Saxon
Jeff Bowler
Zak Penn
Gary Marcus
Bobby Schwartz
Ross M Dinerstein

Executive producers
Ari Palitz
Matt Bierman

Zak Penn
Matt Bierman

Anthony Hardwick

Production design
Shepherd Frankel

Abby Schwarzwalder

Stephen Endelman

Main cast
Woody Harrelson
David Cross
Dennis Farina
Cheryl Hines
Richard Kind
Chris Parnell
Jason Alexander
Ray Romano
Mike Epps
Judy Greer
Werner Herzog
Gabe Kaplan
Michael Karnow
Michael McKean