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The official running time of Grand Piano is ninety minutes. When you subtract the fifteen minutes of opening titles and end credits, that leaves a scant seventy-five minutes of screen time for the actual story. Not surprisingly, everything in the film—from character building to plotting—feels malnourished.
Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood) is a brilliant classical pianist who hasn’t performed in five years. The last time he was on stage, he froze while playing a supposedly unplayable original piece composed by his dead mentor. Mortified by his failure, Tom retired from the world of music. But urged on by his movie star wife Emma (Kerry Bishé), Tom returns to the stage to play a concert in Chicago dedicated to his mentor.
When Tom takes the stage, he discovers notes in his sheet music informing him that if he plays a wrong note, he will be killed by a sniper hiding in the rafters of the building. During an intermission, Tom is ordered to wear an earpiece that allows him to communicate with the sniper (voiced by John Cusack). As the sniper rambles on threats at him about not freezing this time, Tom tries to continue playing the perfect concert while plotting a way to escape the trap he finds himself in.
I tend to really appreciate movies that want to be nothing more than exercises in pure suspense. I will forgive a lack of characterization, hazy plotting, and even generic dialogue if the director behind the camera has the skills to pull off a sleek, entertaining thriller built out of nothing but camera movement, editing, and sound effects. Director Eugenio Mira turns out not to be one of these skilled craftsman and Grand Piano quickly turns into a slog.
The script by Damien Chazelle is structured in such a way that Mira and the cast are immediately put at a disadvantage. A first act made up of nothing but one scene after another of backstory that does not even bother to hide the fact that it’s an exposition dump gets the proceedings off to a rough start.
The gulf between how people describe Tom and how he acts is another problem. Tom is described by several characters as suffering from extreme stage fright. But despite the best efforts of Wood to sell his character’s reluctance to return to performing, he simply seems like a guy with some pre-show jitters who takes the stage with a minimum of fuss. It is not until the assassination plot kicks in that he appears to be panicking about his performance.
The film is given a brief charge once Tom is forced to listen to the assassin’s threats while playing. There is something truly diabolical to what the assassin has set up and how he mentally tortures Tom while the poor guy is trying to play a perfect concert. But even these scenes are undermined by some poorly written dialogue that makes the assassin sound less like an evil genius and more like a random stranger at a bar offering up pop psychology that you didn’t ask for.
Even worse than the increasingly inane dialogue the assassin keeps spouting off is the reveal of his motivation late in the second act. A predictably lame excuse is given for the gimmicky set up. If that were the only problem with this reveal, it would have been bad enough. But the fact that the assassin’s plan depends entirely on Tom actually playing a perfect concert makes his psychological torture of the guy seem stupid in retrospect. Instead of reminding Tom of his past failure and trying to create a divide between him and Emma, wouldn’t it make more sense to encourage the poor guy—or better yet, leave him the hell alone so he can play the piano in peace? But no, this is not the type of movie where logic is allowed to get in the way of hollow attempts to ramp up the villain’s menace.
Where the film does work is as a showcase for Wood. For one thing, he does a much better job than most actors at pantomiming his piano playing. Maybe there was some digital trickery involved in the scenes where he was required to act like he was playing some of the more complicated pieces, but if there was, I didn’t notice. At the same time, he takes some of the more hackneyed dialogue he is forced to spout and gives it an actual emotional force. Instead of phoning in his performance, he delivers the fear and anger that Tom should feel but that Mira seems intent on ignoring. If anything, he is too good for the movie, exuding an intelligence that seems ahead of the plot.
Aside from Wood’s commitment, there is really nothing else to recommend about Grand Piano. It’s a lackluster film that never gets bad enough to be enjoyable. By the time Cusack finally appeared on camera late in the third act, he looked like how I felt: bored, tired, and slightly annoyed. Both he and Wood deserve better than this film.
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