It takes a certain degree of hubris to establish an undeniably silly conceit for a movie and follow through with an unabashed verve. Such is the case for Grand Piano, a thriller from director (and composer) Eugenio Mira. Following the grand tradition of “Man must perform a specific task under duress lest he perish” movies like Speed, Phone Booth and their ilk, the film stars Elijah Wood as a reclusive piano genius returning after a five year absence from the stage to play one more concert. As he begins the first piece, he discovers sinister messages scrawled into the margins of his sheet music. A sniper rifle is trained on him, and if he plays one wrong note, he’ll get a bullet between his eyes. If he tries to signal for help, his famous movie star wife (played by Kerry Bishe) will take the bullet instead. Of course, the piece he is coerced into playing is widely considered to be impossible for anyone other than its composer to play, and was the impetus for his early retirement.
The whole enterprise is wildly preposterous, though one cannot help but admire the resolve of the cast and crew to so thoroughly commit to the madness. Wood’s character runs off stage impulsively multiple times in the middle of a movement, and no one thinks to send someone back there to check on him. He talks to his assailant (a gravelly voiced John Cusack) through an earpiece, often rather loudly, in the middle of the show in ways it would be impossible for the rest of the orchestra not to hear. People in the audience who may be on to what is happening are disposed of in the most comically over the top ways. Logic has taken a holiday from Grand Piano, and has taken subtlety along for the ride. It’s a good thing, then, that Mira has such a powerful and uninhibited visual style. The camera swoops, arcs and pans all about the concert hall. It bolts itself to objects at the opposite sort of angles one would expect to see them. It makes a man playing a piano into an adrenaline soaked thrill ride. Without this approach, nothing would have been able to distract from the silliness of the plot. Indeed, it manages to resemble a taut, competent thriller for the better part of its first hour.
After that first hour, though, the wheels fall off in spectacular fashion. It is fitting in its own way that a film so brazen in its design remains equally untamed as the plot careens around tight curves, going too far and breaking through the guardrail, tumbling into the abyss below. There is a motivation for Cusack’s threats, and once it is revealed Grand Piano stumbles into the banal for its climax. The conventions of the third act belie the excitement of its earlier construction, and the result is something just about everyone has seen before. The hook, the reason why Cusack is so insistent that every note is played to perfection, is shot well and presented decently, but the need for it is mired in cliche. Once the inevitable chase sequence begins, the film has stripped itself of its quirks and settled down into genre predictability, casting off everything that generated interest in its first two acts.
It is a shame, because for a while it felt like Grand Piano had the potential to be something special, a thriller deconstruction with a unique and fresh visual style, the mirror to point out the absurdity of the conceit by reveling in it. In many ways, it shares traits with a similar attempt at deconstruction, Luc Besson’s equally disappointing Lucy, an action pastiche that is comparably filled with visual wizardry and a whacked out, bombastic plot. Lucy flew too far, overshooting its goals and rendering itself inert, humorless and devoid of dramatic tension. Grand Piano’s sin lies in skimming along the ground when it should have taken flight. There is merit in its first sixty minutes, and nothing of the sort in its final twenty. The ultimate lack of ambition leaves it sputtering in neutral after building steam, nothing more than a quirky curiosity.