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‘The Grand’: Not taking the game seriously

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Special to The Times

“At the end of the day, being a professional poker player is a little disheartening because it’s your job as a poker player to surround yourself with the most moronic people you can find on a daily basis. Rich and stupid is best.”

That’s Phil Gordon, the 6-foot-4, camera-ready former co-host of Bravo’s “Celebrity Poker Showdown,” cooling his heels in the Bel-Air Room of the Golden Nugget, down at the far end of the Las Vegas Strip. He’s in town on this summer day in 2006 for the World Series of Poker, getting underway over at the Rio. But what brought him downtown was the chance to jump-start his acting career in “The Grand,” the latest satirical sendup from Zak Penn and the team behind “Incident at Loch Ness,” which did for Werner Herzog documentaries what “This Is Spinal Tap” once did for rock docs. Penn is an A-list screenwriter (“X2,” “X-Men: The Last Stand”) and founding member of Hollywood’s Wesleyan mafia (Mike White, Miguel Arteta, Paul Weitz) who, after a couple of near misses directing his own scripts, tapped a penchant for comedy to go the Christopher Guest route in the world of poker. As an added bonus, he wouldn’t have to give up his day job.

“There will be mistakes in ‘The Grand,’ ” Penn says, “but I feel like it’s going to be my movie -- it’s going to have my sense of humor and my style in it. That’s an incredibly gratifying feeling, as opposed to sitting in the theater and saying, ‘Can I please just tell you what this scene was supposed to be?’ ”

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The onetime host of a regular Hollywood poker game (which he eventually ceded to producer Jon Landau), Penn tapped many of those he had played with to help create an improv-driven comedy set during a celebrity poker tournament. The result features some of the best poker players in show business (David Cross, Jason Alexander, Richard Kind, Cheryl Hines, Hank Azaria, Gabe Kaplan) matched with other actors in colorful character turns (Woody Harrelson as casino cowboy Jack Faro, Dennis Farina as gentleman-throwback LBJ “Deuce” Fairbanks and “Loch Ness” holdover director Werner Herzog as “the German”). Ray Romano, Barry Corbin and Shannon Elizabeth were here for cameos the week before; Michael McKean is scheduled for the next week. And by scheduling their shoot during the World Series of Poker, the filmmakers have access to their pick of poker legends -- including Phil Hellmuth Jr., Doyle Brunson, Antonio Esfandiari and Phil “Unabomber” Laak.

“It’s a very strange cast and getting stranger,” says Penn. “That’s what I like.”

Gordon is happy with the cast for a different reason. “Most of these people would have a permanent invitation to my home game,” he says diplomatically of their playing skills.

Working from a 40-page “scriptment,” Penn enlisted his actors to help enumerate the comic possibilities of their characters. “Zak sent a list of questions to everybody,” says Alexander. “ ‘Do you get along with your family?’ ‘What is poker to you?’ ‘What’s your favorite thing about Vegas?’ ” Alexander’s response to that one -- a character obsessed with Blue Man Group -- was too close to Cross’ Tobias Funke persona in “Arrested Development,” even as Alexander’s idea for a circuit player who shows up after a sex change operation echoed Harry Shearer at the end of “A Mighty Wind.” They settled on having Alexander play Dr. Yakov Achmed, a figure of intense but indeterminate Middle Eastern heritage, like “Saturday Night Live’s” Pat but with ethnic overtones.

A sign greeting players entering the ballroom reads, “Hideous Liqueur welcomes you to the Grand Championship of Poker,” and a seating chart at one end is rich in umlauts and names that read like anagrams -- Yrjana Arkusti, Aake Loki, Qiu Hemis. Semi-famous figures mill about awaiting their cameos: Richard Brodie, who confides (truthfully, it turns out), “You know Microsoft Word? I wrote it”; “Poker Nation” author Andy Bellin, who confides, “Everything I’ve done, I got from poker. It’s incredible life training, but it’s also the new golf -- it’s where business is done in L.A.”

Kind wears a Brooks Brothers shirt and tie beneath a “Party Poker” jersey. “My character is an out-and-out idiot, but a sweetheart of a guy,” he says. “I got into the game by going online to get fireplace pokers and happened to stumble into the tournament, and then by pressing buttons to try and get out, it just snowballed and I won the tournament.” Kind has a background in improv, with four years at Second City in Chicago and a year and a half in Los Angeles, pipelining him into sitcoms (“Mad About You,” “Spin City” and the holy grail of improv, “Curb Your Enthusiasm”).

He extols the virtue of having a good supply of ammunition in reserve: “I’ve got lines for everybody. My line for Werner Herzog, who plays the German, is: ‘Oh, yeah? Are you fluent?’ That cracks me up. Or Dennis Farina, who plays Deuce: ‘Who would want to be named after a three?’ ”

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An auteur turned actor

For anyone who reveled in seeing Herzog, one of the great living directors, playing a rambunctious parody of the Teutonic visionary with the thousand-yard-stare as he did in “Loch Ness” -- and that he is invariably portrayed as -- you may take special delight in learning that Herzog the inveterate Bavarian goofball is back again in fine fettle. “I play the German, but he’s a very ugly German,” Herzog says, removing a fake gold tooth and brass knuckles to be remanded to the custody of a prop person. “I have cages of animals with me -- rabbits and little gold hamsters and some ants. At the beginning, in a filmed statement, I explain that I need to terminate something living each day in order to feel alive -- strangling a goat or shooting a stray dog or squishing an ant.”

It turns out Herzog the actor is positively expansive on the set, yukking it up with Cross, glad-handing visitors. In fact, one of the oddest moments of an already odd shoot is the image of Penn sitting at the monitor directing with Herzog at one shoulder and Brett Ratner, director of the third “X-Men” installment, at the other. Herzog “came on the set of my very first movie in 1997,” Ratner tells “X-Men” producer Avi Arad, both of whom are here as celebrity cameo players -- Ratner sporting a yarmulke in a playing-card print.

A final set-up of the day involves Cross and Hines -- both accomplished poker players steeped in improv -- who play brother and sister rivals who advance to the final round. Cross resembles a human tie-in, with every article of his clothing “swagged,” or labeled with a promotional brand from a previous poker event. “My character is the obnoxious, taunting, baiting, spoiled-brat character,” Cross says. A running gag has him intimidating his opponents with dark glasses, then giant sunglasses, a motorcycle helmet and, finally, a burka.

Hines, who started out as Rob Reiner’s assistant and held her own against Larry David through six seasons of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” plays a version of world series winner Annie Duke (whose brother Howard Lederer is also a professional poker player). Their father, who uniformly supports his daughter, is played by Gabe Kaplan -- a poker player himself, who rates Tobey Maguire as the best young player in Hollywood.

Penn takes pride in parlaying his screenwriting skills into a second career directing unscripted comedy, but he draws the line at embracing “Spinal Tap’s” mockumentary label. “It’s an improvisational comedy. ‘The Grand’ has footage from a TV show in it but there are scenes without any documentary frame. The more self-aware characters are speaking directly to the camera and the less self-aware are not. It’s either going to be a disaster or it’s not.”

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