Player Piano: Interesting Ideas Churn Into Nonsensical Slog in Mira’s Third Outing
Back with his first film since the 2010 potboiler, Agnosia, Spanish director Eugenio Mira returns to filming in English with Grand Piano, an ambitiously designed film that desperately tries to work around a central gimmick. Featuring inspired use of several musical selections and slick editing, which seem designed to pick up the slack for the lack of dramatic tension in a laughable narrative that only becomes more ludicrous as more details become revealed, its initial set-up is quite certainly engaging in that it creates a curiosity to want to know more. That’s saying a lot considering there are several obnoxious supporting characters and wooden performances that muddle the mood early on.
Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood) is known as the most talented pianist of his generation, but he hasn’t performed in public for five years due to a widely publicized incident of a catastrophic performance of an extremely difficult piece of music called La Cinquette, a daring design of artistry written by the rich and aged mentor of Selznick. Throwing himself into retirement, Selznick has been coaxed to perform in Chicago at the beckoning of his wife, who has since become one of Hollywood’s most notable stars during his absence from the limelight.
Now that his mentor has died (and we are clued in early on that the benefactor has hidden his riches somewhere) Selznick seems hesitant but agreeable about the performance. But just as he’s about to begin, he receives a threatening note written on his score at the beginning of the concert that reads “Play one wrong note and you die.” A sniper (John Cusack) is watching him from somewhere above in the 4,000+ packed concert hall, and we learn of a dangerous heist about to take place right in front of the eyes of thousands.
Wood makes intriguing choices with his varied roles, even if the end result isn’t terribly noteworthy. Recently, Wood appeared in another English language thriller entry from a Spanish filmmaker, Alex de la Iglesia’s The Oxford Murders. Thankfully, his collaboration with Mira isn’t quite as woeful as that entry, as here, Wood gives a strong central performance that is both committed and utterly watchable. But insistent as the film is, we are never quite convinced that a soft spoken genius pianist like Wood would be married to a distractingly angelic actress-y A-list player like Kerry Bishe (who many should recognize from Argo). As unbelievable as their relationship and Bishe’s performance is, it’s nothing compared to the scene-chewery of Tamsin Egerton and Allen Leech as two low-class friends of Bishe. Then of course, there’s another unbelievable hammy villainous performance from John Cusack. If you were dubious about his recent stint as a serial killer in The Frozen Ground, you’ll find him utterly laughable here, revealing a twist that makes the entire project feel like a treatment for an episode of “Tales From the Crypt.”
It’s technical aspects have a lot more aspects worthy of praise, and the film clearly feels like an homage to the finale of Hitchcock’s own remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much. Screenwriter Damien Chazelle has an interesting concept, except that it can’t ever escape from feeling like something of a gimmick, though this is a far cry from the formulaic claptrap of his screenplay for The Last Exorcism: Part II.
Director Rodrigo Cortes has a producer credit, and you’ll notice that Mira uses Barcelona as a stand in for an English language metropolis (Chicago here), much the same Cortes did with Red Lights. True, Grand Piano has some elaborate visual sequences thanks to some inspired cinematography from Unax Mendia, who worked with Mira on Agnosia, a film where the major strengths also resided almost solely through visual artifice. But even here, the end result is equally ridiculous, convoluted, and contrived as their previous collaboration, albeit with more of a desire to tag along for the ride to the end credits.
★★ / ☆☆☆☆☆