June 2024

Grand Piano (2013)

DIRECTOR: Eugenio Mira

CAST: Elijah Wood, John Cusack, Kerry Bishe, Tamsin Egerton, Allen Leech, Alex Winter


A Spanish production with an English-language cast (despite being set in Chicago, all interior sets were filmed in Spain, though some outside scenes were filmed in Chicago), Grand Piano had the most limited of theatrical releases, screening briefly at only one New York City theater, though for anyone interested (or anyone who even heard of its existence), it was available for online streaming.  Those who check it out will find a diverting but slightly silly little Hitchcockian-esque thriller which zips along with enough slickly-crafted style to be engaging in the moment, even if it ultimately builds up too many plot holes and flimsy elements.

Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood) was a bright up-and-coming concert pianist before an attack of stage fright derailed his career during an attempt at performing “the impossible piece” La Cinquette.  Five years later, Tom makes his return to the stage arranged by his celebrity wife Emma (Kerry Bishe), but his new show will test more than his rusty piano skills, as he finds an ominous note scribbled on his sheet music that he will be killed if he plays one wrong note…a threat given credence by the red sniper dot popping up on his chest.  Forced by the mysterious sniper (John Cusack) to keep playing before the oblivious audience, Tom must figure out a way to surreptitiously signal for help, while also playing the most flawlessly he’s ever played in his life….a task made even more treacherous when the sniper forces him to face his greatest fear and again take on La Cinquette.

Grand Piano has an intriguing hook, a deliciously Hitchcockian premise diabolical in its spare simplicity (some may also be reminded of Phone Booth, in which a sniper held a man prisoner in a public phone booth), and for the first act or so it proceeds fairly smoothly with it.  The opening establishes with quick and efficient economical exposition Tom’s backstory: a once-promising piano prodigy returning to the stage after an attack of stage fright while attempting to honor his recently deceased mentor (whose portrait looms ominously on various posters in the background) by performing “the unplayable piece”.  The piano itself is introduced as an ominous, looming presence that almost makes it a character unto itself.  The cavernous opera house and spiraling staircases are suitably atmospheric.  The set-up and the sniper’s introduction are effective.  Tom’s predicament of facing his stage fright under the most nerve-wracking of circumstances with his wife also a potential target is enough to invest ourselves in his plight.  Various plot complications are introduced, including Emma’s friends (Tamsin Egerton and Allen Leech) who go wandering around and could become either helpers or casualties, and an usher (Alex Winter) in cahoots with the sniper.

Alas, as the show plays on, the script by Damien Chazelle, who recently made his directorial debut with the critically-acclaimed Whiplash, soon starts piling up plot holes.  The sniper goes to great lengths to prove to Tom how omniscient he is (including sending a silenced shot into the floor next to the piano to prove he’s not bluffing), but shortly thereafter we’re expected to buy that Tom can none-too-stealthily whip out his cell phone and start texting for help?  Equally contrived are the plot contortions allowing Tom to conveniently eavesdrop on pertinent information at a given moment.  The sniper’s goals and motives also turn out to be both logically flimsy and absurdly simple for the convoluted song-and-dance he forces Tom to endure leading up to it (surely there are far simpler ways to get what he needs than this).  It’s not a good thing when we can ponder a villain’s goal for two seconds and come up with far simpler and more efficient ways he could have achieved it (in this regard, I’m slightly reminded of the Johnny Depp thriller Nick of Time, in which Christopher Walken’s villain has made a simple assassination absurdly overly complicated).  The movie takes pains to give the sniper lots of dialogue meant to give him a pseudo-intellectual air, but his nonsensical scheme is one of those needlessly convoluted swaths of nonsense that movies come up with in labored try-hard attempts to make a villain sound smart, rather than…actually making him smart.  SPOILER WARNING  And if things are a little wobbly earlier, we devolve into an unintentionally goofy “action-packed” climax when John Cusack finally shows his face and he and Elijah Wood end up clumsily clambering around in the scaffolding before, surprise surprise, someone plunges to their demise (on top of the piano, no less).  To say Elijah Wood is not exactly action hero material is an understatement, and the ending physical altercation is clumsily choreographed and awkwardly shoehorned in to add a little action to an ending that ends up more silly than exciting.

Grand Piano wobbles but doesn’t completely collapse, at least not to the point of losing its compulsive watchability.  It’s slickly-crafted—there’s some nifty camera work going inside the piano and showing its inner mechanics responding to Tom’s frenzied playing—and La Cinquette, a fictional piece created specifically for the movie by Spanish composer Victor Reyes, is suitably complex and fits right in with real classical piano pieces.  Elijah Wood plays enough piano to fake the rest of it convincingly, allowing for more seamless transitions between he and a hand double, with full body shots of Wood playing and close-up shots of a hand double mixed in for the most complicated notes (Wood brushed up on his piano abilities with an intensive three week crash course before filming).

Elijah Wood, who hasn’t done much high-profile since The Lord of the Rings trilogy a decade ago but regularly pops up on the indie movie circuit, doesn’t have a lot of acting range, and here he spends most of his screentime with the same expression of wide-eyed deer-in-headlights confusion/panic, but it fits the requirements of the role enough for him to mostly get away with it.  John Cusack only shows his face for maybe five minutes at the tail end of the movie, present up until then as only a voice over an earpiece, but he plays what is mostly a voiceover role with smooth menace.  Kerry Bishe is Tom’s somewhat improbably glamorous wife (she and Wood make a bit of an odd couple, but they don’t have much screentime together anyway), and Tamsin Egerton and Allen Leech are the superfluous annoying friends who serve no real purpose except to wander around and eventually get dispatched to prove the villain’s villainy, I guess, and Alex Winter (in his first acting role since 1993) is the unsubtly sketchy usher who serves as the sniper’s flunky.  His character, like Egerton’s and Leech’s, feels mostly superfluous and like a plot complication that only muddies the waters from the deviously simple opening premise.

Grand Piano is slick enough to make for a compulsively watchable diversion—Hitchcock himself wasn’t above distracting from plot holes and silly plot points with filmmaking prowess—and the brisk runtime (an hour and a half, including interminably lengthy opening credits) ensures it doesn’t outstay its welcome, but the wobbly plot and some slightly goofy shenanigans mean it doesn’t reach the Hitchcockian levels it obviously aspires toward.  For a movie centering on a man whose very life depends on never hitting a wrong note, Grand Piano hits too many to earn it more than a lukewarm recommendation.

* * 1/2