Review: Grand Piano
PLOT: A famous pianist returning to the stage for the first time in years learns he's the target of a mysterious gunman, who warns him that if he plays one note wrong during his entire performance he'll be shot to death.
REVIEW: The frantic fun and ridiculousness of GRAND PIANO can't really be explained; it can only be experienced. What seems to be a wannabe highbrow Hitchcockian thriller gradually ascends into a surreal mixture of waking nightmare and what can only be described as slapstick comedy. There are moments in GRAND PIANO that are genuinely hilarious, while other moments are palpably tense; more often than not, it manages to combine the two. Whatever tricky mood it achieves, what GRAND PIANO definitely is is entertaining in a supreme way.
The film's much ballyhooed log line is "SPEED at a piano," although "PHONE BOOTH at a piano" is probably the more accurate short description. And while that may very well have been the kernel of an idea that set writer Damien Chazelle off, GRAND PIANO has sprawled into its own vivid, hyperactive monster, which is mostly thanks to director Eugenio Mira, who guides the ludicrous script with an extremely polished yet unhinged hand. Mira immediately becomes a director to get excited about after GRAND PIANO, and here's hoping there are many more high-concept thrillers waiting out there for him to have his demented way with.
Elijah Wood is the star of the thing, and he's just as up to the story's wacky demands. He plays Tom Selznick, five years ago one of the most promising and exciting pianists in the world but now a bundle of nearly wrecked nerves. Tom has a tendency to choke big time on stage, and now that he's coming out of retirement, he's afraid that nasty habit will rear its ugly head up again. The anxiety is heightened by the fact that he'll be tickling the ivories of an exquisite piano owned by his now-dead mentor, a majestic instrument only brought in out of storage for this occasion, only to be put back once there performance is done. Tom's fear is that he'll disappoint himself, the memory of his mentor, his famous actress girlfriend (Kerry Bishe) and his eager, high society public.
But the one person Tom really shouldn't disappoint is the man standing in the rafters with a sniper rifle pointed at his head. Very early into the concert, Tom finds the words "Play One Note Wrong and You Die" written on the sheet music. At first thinking it's a joke, Tom finds out soon enough that the threat is indeed real, and the villain waiting in the shadows has a very unique finale planned for the concert.
It's unfair to go further, because GRAND PIANO demands that you buy this central conceit and allow Mira and Chazelle to take you on a very weird, amusing journey. At just under 90 minutes, GRAND PIANO escalates its situation with a speed only matched by Wood's furious work on the piano. (And let me tell you, it's no joke that Wood learned his stuff for this role because you can absolutely tell that he's playing the instrument.) While the challenge might seem to be how to generate suspense from a guy sitting at a piano for an hour, the story finds ways to get Tom moving and involve others in his plight, while Mira and cinematographer Unax Mendia consistently document the unfolding insanity with stylish aplomb.
But you have to be with it. If you tap out of GRAND PIANO early on, it's not going to work. And it's so nuts that you won't be forgiven if you don't give it the chance it needs. For me, it works entirely on its own plane of existence. The film is so absurd that it actually does become a comedy of sorts, and it's not ignorant of this. GRAND PIANO knows its central idea is fairly silly, and the many subplots within equally preposterous, so it adopts the atmosphere of a particularly energetic giallo, which allows it to go way over the top while not quite veering into the land of unintentional comedy. Bottom line is, if you laugh during GRAND PIANO, rest assured you're laughing with it.
If there's a disappointing element to GRAND PIANO, it's the endgame of the assassin. While I won't spoil it here, I will say that the motive is a bit more pedestrian than one would hope for given how wild every other element of the film is. Played ably by John Cusack, the baddie is intimidating at the start but once his wants are made clear the stakes of the game feel somehow diminished. That said, Wood and Cusack make for a solid protagonist-antagonist combo, having both committed to their roles fiercely. (And a special and affectionate shout-out is in order to Alex Winter - yes, Alex Winter! - who has an amusing turn as an usher at the hall.)
Final thought: I'd love to see an alternate cut of this film simply from the audience's perspective, as they watch Tom talking to himself, standing, running off the stage, sweating profusely, bumbling a phone around, etc. What must they have been thinking while seeing this spectacle? Just another funny idea GRAND PIANO brings to the table.
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