GRAND PIANO Review: Every Note is Flat
My first recollection of movies being described based on an “elevator pitch” was in 1994, when Jan de Bont‘s Speed was released and touted as “Die Hard on a bus.” That unwittingly unleashed a slew of “Die Hard on a …” imitators, none of which are worthy to be compared to the 1988 groundbreaker, with the exception of the aforementioned Speed and Andrew Davis‘s Under Siege (1992), which was sold as “Die Hard on a ship.”
The elevator pitch is still being used to perfection by Hollywood today – and even the name Die Hard, some 25 years later, is still being invoked: two 2013 releases – Antoine Fuqua‘s Olympus Has Fallen and Roland Emmerich‘s White House Down are both “Die Hard in the White House.” (Neither are worthy, for the record.)
Now in 2014 comes my first experience with an elevator pitch spun from an elevator pitch. Where Speed was touted as “Die Hard on a bus,” Eugenio Mira‘s Grand Piano has been called “Speed at a piano.”
Five years ago, Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood) was the greatest concert pianist in the world. But a terrible mistake at the end of a so-called unplayable piece – “La Cinquette” – was deemed “The Great Screw-Up” and drove Tom into retirement. In the present day, Tom is relectantly poised to make a comeback, spurred on by his movie star wife Emma (Kerry Bishé). Adding pressure to the evening is the fact that Tom will be playing the piano that once belonged to his late, beloved mentor. Like Tom, his mentor was the only other pianist known to be able to play “La Cinquette.”
Tom has no plans of playing that piece until he sits down at the piano in front of the large audience. When he opens his sheet music he finds a message scrawled in red: “One wrong note and I’ll kill you.” The written threats continue and he is directed to put in an earpiece. Speaking to him (and hearing him) is his would-be assassin (John Cusack), who spends the rest of the evening torturing Tom from afar with everything from intimidating language to pointing the red dot of a high-powered rifle’s scope on the sheet music to firing a silenced round into the floor next to Tom. Tom is ultimately forced to play “La Cinquette” (lest his wife be killed), and his anonymous tormenter has a curious reason for making him do so.
The core concept of Grand Piano is wonderfully fraught with tension. The notion of a concert pianist making his improbable (albeit begrudging) comeback under such enormous pressure, and then intensifying that pressure ten-fold with the threat of being killed should he play a single wrong note, is practically Hitchcockian. The problem is that the conceit is so structured that screenwriter Damien Chazelle doesn’t have the storytelling acumen to keep the story plausible.
The comparison to Speed is a accurate one, but it’s also a good exercise in compare-and-contrast. With Speed, the “one false move and your dead” peril is based on active movement (don’t drive the bus slower than 55 MPH), which allows for some of the great set-pieces to naturally evolve: managing that feat in traffic, and with people on the bus, and with a partially unfinished freeway (not to mention an in-motion rescue attempt). With this film, the “one false move and your dead” peril pertains to … Tom’s hands. The only thing he needs to keep moving at the right speed are his hands. Where do you naturally go from there? Chazelle and director Mira answer that question by forcing action – by spreading outward instead of tightening inward – usually to the point of ridiculousness.
Most of the problem occurs within the context of the story. Even looking past the fact that the opening minutes needlessly stress and re-stress “The Great Screw-Up,” the rest of the story demands you to believe that no one else in the audience or in the orchestra noticed the laser point on the piano, the cellphone next to Tom’s leg that he uses to send an emergency text, or the threatening bullet that oh-so cleanly enters the stage floor. And that’s just the action onstage. Yes, there is action offstage because Chazelle and Mira can’t possibly sustain any length of time onstage without becoming quickly boring or even more preposterous.
Sadly, offstage is no more plausible. The action that takes place involving Emma’s insufferably two-dimensional non-celeb BFF Ashley (Tamsin Egerton), as well as Ashley’s kept boyfriend Wayne (Allen Leech), is laughable for all the wrong reasons. At the end of the film, there is a reveal that invokes memories of Now You See Me, and in the worst possible way.
With that to work with, Mira tries to visually inject life into a story that is thematically still. He does so by wildly overplaying camera movements (another negative comparison to Now You See Me), trying to make the you believe that more is going on in the film than is actually happening.
The performances are about as good as the material will allow them to be, but in the end it’s the material that undermines the film. The filmmakers could have had something special had they embraced the Hitchcockian side of the conceit and gone smaller and more intimate, like Rear Window or Rope. Instead, they turned Grand Piano into a riff on Speed, and in the process brought a clever idea to a grinding halt.