Film The Grand Is Mediocre
posted by April 3 at 12:51 PMon
This review didn’t fit in today’s print edition:
dir. Zak Penn
The word “mediocre” comes from Middle French and literally means “halfway up a jagged mountain.” Not just any mountain—a jagged one, implying that the mediocre have struggled and sweated and cursed to get where they are. But they’re sitting on a rock, panting, and can’t go any higher.
The Grand, then, is mediocre. It wants to be an improvised mockumentary, in the style of Christopher Guest, about a Vegas poker tournament and the eccentrics who play in it. But it is too pat—too obviously the product of minds struggling to be funny—to pass as candid. Woody Harrelson stars as a drug addict who inherits a Vegas casino, loses it to a real-estate vulture, and enters a $10 million poker tournament to win it back. He plays against a procession of gambling clichés: the Asperger’s guy, the aggressive jerk, the goofball from Minnesota, the woman, and the old-timer who mourns for the Vegas of his youth, with its underage hookers, parking-lot violence, and racism.
And then there’s “the German,” played by Werner Herzog, the best thing about The Grand. The German is as much a cliché as the rest: an inscrutable Teutonic aesthete and sadist who has traveled the world, gambled with yak bones in the African desert, and played Russian roulette with slave traders. But Herzog brings heat and effortlessness—a comical life—to his scenes. (Maybe because it’s not so hard to imagine Herzog actually gambling with actual yak bones.)
Imagine Woody Harrelson with muttonchops talking about his life as a stoned ne’er-do-well. Yawn. Now imagine Herzog, stroking a bunny, staring into the camera, saying in his flat Herzogian accent: “Most people drink coffee, but I sink of sis as se beverage of se cowards,” and explaining how, as a pick-me-up, he kills a small animal each day with his bare hands. That moment stands up and grows wings. It soars above mediocrity, up the jagged mountain, all the way to its peak. BRENDAN KILEY
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