Let's get this colorfully simple statement out of the way right now: the slick, stylish, and admirably fast-paced thriller called Grand Piano could easily be described as "Phone Booth in a concert hall" -- except that it's quite a bit better than that. That description just makes for some easy short-hand in the early part of a film review that (hopefully) serves to pique your interest. Because make no mistake: Grand Piano is simply a whole lot a "high concept" entertainment with a welcome sense of character, timing, restraint, and cleverness. Also great music. And a few sequences that you Hitchcock and/or De Palma fans will truly adore.
For those who may be unfamiliar with the term "high concept," here's a perfect example of one: Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood, whom it is literally impossible to not love) is one of the world's finest pianists, but he's back on stage after a devastating professional failure and a five-year hiatus from performing. His plan is to play a very swanky concert in Chicago, with full orchestral support, on a very special piano, regain some confidence, and move on to happier times. No pressure on Tom, right? Let's not forget that he's married to a monumentally-adored Hollywood actress AND that most of his fellow musicians legitimately dislike the guy.
Let's just say it's easy to root for Tom Selznick long before he takes the stage, tickles the ivories, and discovers that there's a sniper in the concert hall who is pointing a rifle directly at his wife.
That's "high concept," all the way like Phone Booth had a man trapped in a tiny glass case and Speed had "the bus that couldn't slow down," Grand Piano has a world-class pianist who is forced to play flawlessly or have his wife gunned down by a madman with a truly strange motive. To say anything more would rob the viewer of the numerous twists and jolts found within Damien Chazelle's screenplay, but if the set-up sounds amusing to you already, I can attest that the presentation is even better.
Director Eugenio Mira is clearly intent on giving his audience a visual feast to go along with the lovely music and the slowly mounting suspense. The cinematography is simply beautiful in many of the quieter scenes, but as the music and the intensity build to a feverish finale, the viewer is treated to a wide variety of camera tricks and visual flourishes that add style, class, and energy to a concept could easily come off as dry, dull, or silly.
In addition to a calm but obvious sense of humor surrounding the entire concept, Mr. Mira also has a fantastic cast to work with: in addition to the always affable Elijah Wood (who pulls off some fantastic physical tricks in the movie!), we also have the veteran character actor Don McManus as a colorful conductor with a good heart, old-school movie geek favorite Alex Winter as a security guard with a few secrets to hide, the warm and adorable Kelly Bishe as Tom's loving wife, and (mostly) the malevolent voice of John Cusack as the sniper with a serious grudge.
Proof positive that simple "crowd-pleaser" thrillers can be produced on relatively smaller budgets and still hit the screen looking like well-crafted Hollywood fare, Grand Piano is nothing more than 90 minutes of quick, slick, and disarmingly classy fun. The "sniper in a concert hall" may sound like a bit of a stretch, but let's just say the "thriller" shelf would be a lot more interesting if half the movies were as well-made as Grand Piano.