They say I walk around like got an “S” on my chest
Naw, that’s a semi-auto, and a vest on my chest.
— 50 Cent, “What Up Gangsta?”
Werner Herzog plays The German. In another movie, this might be all you need to know. But in Zak Penn’s improvisational comedy, this delicious detail is slightly less meaningful. Though Herzog spends several minutes in mock-interview mode, describing how essential it is for him “to kill something each day,” these are fleeting and generally overwhelmed by the rest of the movie’s awkward unfunniness. “It doesn’t have to be very large,” The German notes of his daily dead meat. “An ant once in a while or spiders, they come very easily. I have shot stray dogs…” All the while, he’s stroking the cute white bunny in his lap, Munchkin.
The German is a poker player, his interview occasioned by the giant annual tournament called “The Grand.” As explained by the primary narrator of The Grand, Jack Faro (Woody Harrelson), this tournament is hosted by his own casino, the Rabbit’s Foot in Vegas. For this particular year, the stakes for Jack are especially high: he’s lost the casino to billionaire-developer Steve Lavisch (Michael McKean) and means to win back enough money in order to regain the establishment his dead grandfather so loved. As Jack confesses throughout his lengthy and not especially compelling opening monologue, he has squandered his legacy on drugs and women: he’s been married some 74 times (of the sample photos flashed on screen, one shows the “Runaway Bride”), and a list of abuses at the rehab clinic attests that he’s experimented with everything from LSD and oxycontin to peyote and rohypnol. As he speaks, the movie briefly indicates various points in time (three weeks ago, as he’s leaving rehab, six months before entering rehab to show his loss of the casino), though none of these storylines provides a particular point of entry.
Jack’s own point is the name of the movie, which he suggests ought to follow the thematic focus: “Poker’s some kind of cosmic metaphor,” he meanders, the tournament at hand being “winner take all, luck and skill be damned.” This would be why the movie is called “Luck and Skill be Damned.” Except it’s not. It’s named for the tournament, much blander and more generic. Jack goes on to introduce, more or less, the six major players, including The German, Deuce Fairbanks (Dennis Farina), Reggie (Mike Epps), and siblings Larry Schwartzman (David Cross) and Lainie (Cheryl Hines). Each figures warrants a very brief and reductive thumbnaily moment: while Deuce wears a cowboy hat and Reggie is black (here, that’s apparently all that need be said), Lainie first appears swearing like a sailor (“Motherfucker!”), suggesting that her success at the table has to do with a certain aggressiveness.
This point is underscored repeatedly, especially with regard to her much less hard-hitting brother and the bit of backstory they are afforded via their meddling, wrong-headed father Seth (Gabe Kaplan). When he shows up at the tournament, it becomes clear why they are so angry and dysfunctional, each in a different way, as he has spent their childhood breeding antagonism and resentment between them. (It is perhaps no surprise, in this sometimes painfully crude film, that no mom is in sight.) Lainie is herself a mother, though it appears that the majority of the parenting in her household falls to stay-at-home dad Fred (Ray Romano): she’s the breadwinner and he plays fantasy football. The Grand spends too much time interviewing Lainie and Fred in order to expose their mutual resentments over money and family obligations, even as it also makes clear that the very fact that the marriage has lasted — and that they’ve procreated — makes them unusual among poker obsessives.
Though, as Jack declares early on, the players believe “they’ve got the game figured out,” the movie reveals repeatedly that they have nothing figured out, least of all the game. Whether or not it is a “cosmic metaphor,” here poker serves as a measure of character, such that the most intense, least socially competent caricatures serve as the film’s broadest jokes, while those who manage to have lives beyond the table — that would be Lainie and, to an extent, Larry — embody a short range of tics and warps. Among the least entertaining is Andy Andrews (Richard Kind), an “amateur” (online) player who’s apparently won his spot at the Grand by luck alone. He brings along his wife Sharon (Judy Greer), happy to gain brief respite from their home in frosty Dour (“the ‘Frostbite Amputation Capital’ of the Midwest,” notes a caption), where she makes and sells ribbons. Her incessantly cheerful dedication to Andy helps to explain how he floats so cluelessly above the fray of the other players, convinced that his determined lack of attention to the cards is all the skill necessary to win at this game.
The flipside of this attitude is embodied by Harold (Chris Parnell), diehard Dune fan (he’s fond of reciting David Lynch’s Mentat Mantra during games: “It is by will alone I set my mind in motion. It is by the juice of Sapho that thoughts acquire speed, the lips acquire stains, the stains become a warning”) and baby boy to doting Ruth (Estelle Harris). Embarrassed like a teenaged boy when she steps up to meet his new “friends” at the game (“I apologize for her presence”), Harold is surely recognizable, but within the mockumentary’s very limited parameters, he’s got nowhere to go.
These limits are made elaborately visual in The Grand‘s incorporation of TV poker show graphics and commentators, including Mike Werbe’s (Michael Karnow) recurring pitches for his poker-related books (he advises, “create a fictional persona” and “memorize the cards”). The sheer dinkiness of Werbe’s ads, on top of the TV show’s cheesy graphics and looks at players’ hands during each game, emphasizes the dearth of imagination and effort involved in TV poker. For all the players’ eccentricities, the film is most effective when it targets the commercial process.