Active Ingredients: Limited narrative scope; Genre silliness
Side Effects: Believability; Thematic shallowness
A high-concept exercise, Grand Piano hits its notes brisky and confidently but with fewer surprises than the concert it depicts. The film is about Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood), the best concert pianist of his generation, who returns to the stage five years after a disastrous and very public meltdown. While Tom is simply concerned with straightening his tie and keeping his composure, he’s got a much bigger problem: a mysterious sniper (John Cusack) has a gun trained on him, and is threatening to fire if he plays one wrong note.
The film’s capital-C concept is, of course, patently ridiculous, but I admired its dedication and unwavering attention to exploring exactly how and why such a situation might play out. Apart from a few early, economical sequences, the entire film takes place during the concert. The sniper communicates with Tom through an earpiece, even as he plays florid and breakneck passages before an oblivious crowd, while the camera itself follows suit, swirling operatically around the stage.
Director Eugenio Mira is careful to maintain the illusion of a continuous performance, which poses challenges in staging the action of the film. For example, long stretches of orchestration allow Tom the opportunity to dash off stage, take care of a crisis, and hurry back to his bench without the audience suffering through silence. As contrivances mount, it becomes less and less believable that such a concert could ever take place, but what’s important is that the film itself is completely convinced by its own conceit.
It’s this earnestness, more than its style, that brings to mind Brian De Palma. De Palma’s recent thrillers, like 2013’s melodramatic Passion, seem to acknowledge their own heightened tone without pushing the mood towards the farcical. This can be as frustrating as it is endearing. But while Grand Piano lacks the self-reflexivity and virtuosic camerawork of De Palma’s best films, its straight-faced silliness keeps the film from feeling leaden.