Starring: Elijah Wood, John Cusack
Director: Eugenio Mira
Grand Piano is a film that goes all out for old school Hollywood glamour: plush décor, tuxes and evening gowns, elaborate camera set-ups, elevated but fraught characters and stagy, convoluted situations. Elijah Wood plays Tom, a once-promising classical pianist making a high-profile comeback after crashing and burning in public five years before midway through a notoriously unplayable piece. It’s an experience that has left him suffering from stage fright, but that’s the least of his worries, for no sooner has he started tinkling the ivories in front of a rapt concert hall than he finds himself menaced by a sharp shooter (voiced by John Cusack) who has scrawled threatening messages in his score and then issues demands to him via earpiece.
As in several recent thrillers (for instance, Non Stop), sections of Grand Piano seem to unwind in real time. Luckily, there are whole parts of the score where the piano doesn’t come in and Tom can jump up and dart around, frenetically trying to turn the tables on the marksman. But Damien Chazelle’s ripely florid script keeps throwing new curveballs at him, culminating in an enjoyably improbable MacGuffin which can only be resolved by – you guessed it – Tom making another do-or-die attempt at that notorious piece which stymied him the last time round!
This isn’t the sort of storyline that’s going to respond to a grittily realistic treatment, and director Eugenio Mira very sensibly opts instead for a flamboyant approach drawing on the Brian De Palma songbook – sorry, playbook. De Palma fans will fondly recognize many of the stylistic flourishes here – split screens and what is presumably a modern CG equivalent of split diopters (an optical effect which keeps objects in the foreground and background in hyper-real sharp focus at the same time) – but Mira makes them his own and has a lively way with a swooping crane shot. Similarly, Victor Reyes’ pastiche-classical score is great fun for music buffs. And yet, to be fair, the artificially doesn’t extend to the two key performances. Wood’s performance is full of genuine anguish, and so is John Cusack’s voiceover. Dripping with bile and envy, his rants seem, at times, like those of an irate viewer railing at the glamorous folk on screen and wondering why they should have so much when he has so little. And it’s this raw, sour note that you’ll remember the longest after watching Grand Piano.