It’s All in Your Head, by David Bax
Eugenio Mira’s Grand Piano, an unexpected delight that played Fantastic Fest last year, doesn’t waste any time getting things moving. We get a brief and ominous scene of the titular instrument being removed from storage in a stately mansion and put on a truck and then we are almost immediately in the back of a limousine with Elijah Wood’s famed pianist, Tom Selznick, headed into downtown Chicago for what will be the concert of his life in more ways than he knows.
Mira and screenwriter Damien Chazelle do manage to find time in the swift first act to fill us in on Selznick’s backstory via some awkward but thankfully economical exposition. He hasn’t performed in five years due to an embarrassing on-stage meltdown while trying to play a very difficult piece written by his deceased mentor. Now he’s making his return by giving a concert on that same mentor’s cherished piano. He’s stricken with self-doubt and his nerves are a mess. Not helping matters is the fact that, shortly after he begins his performance, he discovers that someone in the auditorium’s rafters is pointing a gun at his head. One wrong note and he dies. Any attempt to call for help and Tom’s wife is murdered in her box seat.
Chazelle may have been unsubtle in laying out Selznick’s history but he lends a softer yet assured touch to mapping out character relationships. Tom’s wife, Emma (Kerry Bishé), is a movie actress who has the greater fame but, more importantly to this story, she and Tom love each other dearly. There is relatively little actual screen time shared by the two of them but, thanks to the screenplay and the performances, we understand that their marriage is one of equal respect and deep affection. It would almost have to be, given that she’s about two feet taller than he is. Also impressive is character actor Don McManus as the conductor and one of Tom’s only true friends. His blunt but warm manner of speaking to Tom gets to the heart of male friendship. Rounding out the cast (well, nearly) is Alex Winter, who seems to have worked sporadically since the Bill & Ted films but who turns in a sharp and funny performance here as the villain’s henchman posing as a concert hall employee but too incompetent and apathetic to mask his malevolent intentions.
The final notable member of the cast – a number of stiff smaller parts hint that the budget may have gone to the few stars and the remarkable location – is John Cusack, almost completely unseen. Eventually, Tom gets an earpiece that allows him to communicate back and forth with the hidden gunman. Cusack relishes this role much as Kiefer Sutherland did in Joel Schumacher’s Phone Booth. Cusack was luckier than Sutherland, though, in that this is a much better film.
During the aforementioned limo ride, Tom partakes in a phone interview for a local classical music radio station. Afte listening in to the host describe Tom’s previous choke-job, the question that sparks him to finally speak is, “Tom, what’s going through your mind?” This bit of foreshadowing clues us in that Mira is not going to allow his metaphors to be inconspicuous. When Cusack’s mysterious psycho becomes the literal voice in Tom’s head, we may reflect on this earlier scene. The pressures Tom feels have never really come from the audience’s expectations or from letting down his wife or even from John Cusack’s rifle. They’re in his head. The voice telling him that his friends don’t really like him or that he’ll never be as good as those who came before him is his own. It takes over and dictates his performance the same way Cusack barks at him, telling him what to play and how to play it.
Mira’s straightforward presentation of allegory paves over – and even enhances – sequences that wouldn’t make sense if we were supposed to take them at face value. If Tom is supposed to play difficult music flawlessly, why does the villain carry on conversations with him while he’s performing? This is to say nothing of the plausibility of Tom sending a surreptitious text message on stage in the middle of playing a piece of music. The sense that this is all a little too perfect tips over into a smile-inducing self-consciousness when the gunman is apparently able to see Tom’s movements even when he’s in the backstage bowels of the building. The concert hall, by the way, is a beautiful and visually rich location that Mira employs to endless effect, mastering its geography effortlessly.
Grand Piano’s heavy-handedness is a matter of joyous, pulpy overindulgence, not of pretension. The pace and pressure don’t let up even once in the film’s brisk 90 minutes and the sumptuous scope cinematography makes it all the more pleasurable. All that plus an enjoyably bent sense of humor – the janitor repeatedly shaking his head disdainfully at Tom is a bizarre and hilarious touch – adds up to a “movie” movie that’s a hell of a great time.