Riveting (But Ridiculous)

Grand Piano mixes piano playing and Hitchcock-approximating suspense

In describing Grand Piano, I have to go to my verbal tool belt and pull out that made-up word that so many critics resort to when it comes to thrillers. That word would be "Hitchcockian."

I know, I know ... I can't stand it when critics throw out that word, but there really isn't a way to describe it better. I could go with "Hitchcock wannabe" or "It's a lot like a Hitchcock movie," but those don't have a good ring to them. "Hitchcockian" is the way to go, and far more economical when I don't spend two paragraphs talking about its usage.

Elijah Wood, aka Frodo, aka one of the movie stars who tazed Samberg in the butthole in the "Threw it On the Ground" video, plays pianist Tom Selznick, who is making his grand return to concert performances five years after botching a rendition of his mentor's "most unplayable piece."

The big event has been put together by his wife, movie star Emma Selznick (Kerry Bishe), and she's arranged for Tom to play the number on his now-deceased mentor's prized piano. He's justifiably nervous, having murdered the piece in his last appearance so badly that it drove him into professional exile. As he walks backstage to his dressing room, stagehands snicker and predict he will choke.

While standing offstage ready to go on, a mild-mannered security guard (played by Alex Winter of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure) hands him his charts (which he had forgotten) and disappears. Tom glances at them, only to see that somebody has written some strange notes on the pages with a red Sharpie.

Those notes are the setup for a rather clever gimmick that has Tom playing some extremely difficult piano pieces while somebody out in the distance alternately aims a rifle at him and his wife in the balcony. The notes include the distinct warning that if he plays one bad note, he will die. None of this bodes well for Tom's stage fright.

Tom is also forced to wear an earpiece so his possible assassin can speak to him while he's trying to play. That voice is supplied by Mr. John Cusack, aka Lloyd Dobler, aka the assassin in Grosse Pointe Blank.

I love it when Cusack takes on roles that seem to be extensions of prior roles. He did it well with Hot Tub Time Machine, which was a nice ode to his offbeat '80s romances. Now he's doing it again because his character here could just as soon be his Martin from Grosse Pointe Blank a few sad years down the road. Cusack does great, mostly vocal, work here, providing a true sense of tension mixed with dark humor.

I won't tell you why the Cusack character is torturing Tom onstage. I will tell you that the more I think about it, the more ridiculous the whole setup is. There are many more less-complicated solutions for the Cusack character to get what he seeks. Alas, there would be no movie if he just took one of those simpler routes.

Wood does some very good acting here, especially in regard to his piano miming. So many times we have seen actors and actresses look like doofuses while faking playing the piano in movies. With the exception of a few quick shots that I detected, Wood makes it look like he knows what he is doing, keeping his motions in time with what we are hearing.

Wood also has that sad face, which makes it easy to feel sorry for his character and root for him, even when the film is spiraling out of logic control. Director Eugenio Mira does a good job of keeping his crazy little movie on track for the most part.

It's good to see Winter in a movie again. Looking over his career, I'm thinking this is his first semi-major role since playing Ricky Coogan in 1993's Freaked, an underrated cult delight that he directed himself. He's been making documentaries and doing voice work, but other than some quickie bit parts, his face has been largely absent from movie screens. He's called upon to do something a little different in this one, and he does it well.

Some slick camera work and editing (much of the film is done in real time, 24 style), the great voice of Cusack and a solid turn from Wood make Grand Piano a gripping, if often silly, enterprise. Hitchcock would probably scream "Rip-off!" and eat a whole turkey upon seeing it. I'm thinking the producers of this film would be happy with such a reaction (the rip-off, part, not so much the poultry consumption).

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