John Cusack has been busy, what with three new releases in the last three weeks. As discussed in "Hide in Plain Sight,” he is one of a growing legion of stars finding work in high-level productions that don’t necessarily get wide theatrical releases in the modern world. See my reviews of Adult World and The Bag Man to get up to speed, and case in point number three is Eugene Mira’s Grand Piano, an entertainingly preposterous De Palma/Hitchcock throwback involving a troubled grand pianist (Elijah Wood) who is threatened with the execution of his wife, himself and many others in the Chicago concert hall he’s attempting a comeback in if he doesn’t play an “impossible” piece to perfection. Why? Well, even after viewing I’m not entirely sure, but as a cross between the real-time mayhem of De Palma’s Snake Eyes and a key sequence of Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, Grand Piano provides some baroque kicks not found much recently on the big screen. Even the surviving master De Palma’s superior Passion barely made a theatrical wrinkle after a 2112 New York Film Festival birth, so this film’s want of wide release (it’s currently playing at the Cinema Village in Manhattan and On-Demand) should not be seen as a sign of disaster. If you like the cinema of De Palma, Hitchcock or Dario Argento, you likely will chuckle in recognition of what Mira attempts and sometimes achieves.
Elijah Wood’s large, alarmed eyes are used to good effect by Mira as the pianist plagued with self-doubt after self-destructing on stage the last time he attempted the very piece madman Cusack demands he plays to perfection tonight. Kerry Bishe, an actress who caught my eye with her sympathetic performance as the lead in the final, stumbling season of Scrubs and has since been used to good effect by Kevin Smith and Edward Burns, has predictably little-to-do as the female lead in a tug-of-war between Wood and Cusack, but she is lovely and tries to bring shading to a fairly underdeveloped character. Tamsin Egerton earns our attention, bringing sulky humor to her part as an attention-seeking theatergoer who clearly thinks herself the star of life, and Alex Winter (from Bill and Ted and The Lost Boys) and Don McManus are both fun in key supporting parts; they may not understand the absurd material any more than the viewer, but they’re game.
Cusack’s performance is almost entirely vocal, and his concentrated, cantankerous delivery makes me wish Cusack were given a few more clever things to say as he rants in an earpiece to Wood as the drama unfolds. When he physically is introduced into the proceedings, it’s an effective moment due to both his height (he can credibly throttle the diminutive Wood) and the Orson-Welles-as-Harry-Lime effect The Third Man effect; after being off-camera for so long, we look forward to his finally appearing. Cusack’s physical arrival portends a big climactic flourish to this operatic film, but, inopportunely, unlike Welles’ Harry Lime, Cusack isn’t allowed any baroque speech or elaborate explanation of his plan or madness. Essentially, he just shows up to physically menace Wood.
Still, the witty tension of Wood attempting to play while texting messages to friends in the audience and arguing in a headpiece to Cusack, while we try to determine just what Cusack is up to, holds up for most of the running time. The film reminds me of some of Dario Argento’s eccentric, even outrageously plotted films such as Opera and Deep Red, minus the artistic gore. That’s a compliment, as Mira and cinematographer Unix Mendia makes good use of the concert hall’s space both onstage and backstage, sustaining the visual luster even as some developments strain credulity. According to the IMDB, Mira is a composer himself, with very little directorial experience, yet he does show an impressive amount of technical proficiency. While busy, the film isn’t assembled in the overedited style of 21st century cinema. This is smoothly engineered nonsense, overcoming the Spain-doubling-as-Chicago limitations and thirteen-listed producers, with the camera often deliriously deliviring what the writer has failed to provide.
The film is a broad cartoon of sorts for adults, and it doesn’t take itself seriously. It, in fact, might not take itself seriously enough; filmgoers’ suspension-of-disbelief is almost inexhaustible if we feel we are in the hands of a skilled storyteller. Mira is a talented filmmaker with an exquisite visual sense, and if the opening sequences are a little clumsy on bald exposition, they all the same portend lively times ahead. One wishes Mira and screenwriter Damien Chazelle worked a little harder on the final moments, where the filmmakers’ seem to throw their hands up in the air as if to say “what do you want from us?” Grand Piano is no classic, but if Mira truly wishes to attempt a career as a 21st century De Palma or Argento (I won’t quite go Hitchcock, yet), I’m on board as classifying him a “Subject for Further Research,” as the late, great Andrew Sarris would say.