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Competition, The
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by Jack Sommersby

"Gets Almost All the Notes Right"
4 stars

Not a box-office success but good enough on its own charming terms.

Excepting a contrived and superfluous subplot, "The Competition" is an uncommonly intelligent, perceptive motion picture that dares to be low-key and character-oriented and not cheaply beholden to cliche. How refreshing. Richard Dreyfuss's Paul Dietrich is a Chicago-based classic pianist since childhood who simply hasn't won the major awards on the national stage thus far - as the movie opens he places third in a competition in Cincinnati, and he's hugely disappointed, not to mention guilt-ridden because his parents (he still lives at home) have financially sacrificed to support him until he reaches greatness. Deep down Paul knows he *just* doesn't have the stuff to be on top and is seriously considering a job offer for a decent twelve-thousand a year at a public school to substitute-teach music classes and drive around the city scouting possible proteges - he argues, he'll even get a car allowance for his duties. But thinking it over he announces he'll give it one last shot with a prestige competition in San Francisco which has a twenty-thousand-dollar payout (his award in Ohio got him just two-hundred) and a two-year contract to play at Carnegie Hall. Upon arriving in the city he encounters Amy Irving's much-younger Heidi Joan Schoonover who he previously played with for two hours in a club a year ago; she immediately makes clear her romantic affectation for him, but he rudely brushes get off with the mind-set that any such distraction can throw him off his game. He manages to qualify with five others as finalists, consisting of Heidi, of course, and we're given the distinct pleasure of witnessing these two talents going about steadfastly practicing, choosing just the right piano to play on, and improving their playing knowing they're up against the stiffest competition the country has to offer. The writer-director Joel Oliansky seems to know what he's talking about, and making his feature-film in both areas he gives us both acceptable dialogue and decent camerawork, with the latter particularly persuasive in that playing a musical instrument like the piano is not exactly the most visually vivid in cinematic terms. Each number is embedded with its own emotional tone, and we're grateful to Oliansky for taking his time and not using frenetic cutting to unduly juice up the playing - the actors have clearly done their research on the piano, and while we're not asked to entirely buy they're playing these virtuoso pieces themselves they convincingly go through the motions. (The only thing that rings false is a Russian contestant whose instructor defects, causing her a chronic nervous condition, which hospitalizes her causing the competition to be postponed a week, which conveniently allows downtime for Paul and Heidi to spend more time with each other.) And you have to give Dreyfuss a lot of credit here. After his deserved Oscar-winning performance as the eccentric stage actor in "The Goodbye Girl" he no doubt had mountains of scripts to choose from; it's admirable he chose the role of Paul who's the very opposite of showy. Dreyfuss, himself a virtuoso, unselfishly digs into the role and comes up with varied nuances that draw us to Paul in that we know he's carrying a short lifetime of regret along with him (he's just five months shy of the competition cutoff age) and is stiff-scared of his built-in musical limitations. And the luminous Irving is his match. Two years prior in Brian De Palma's "The Fury" I thought her just another pretty face with only smidgens of ability; this time around she's developed timing and control, and she holds her own, with her and her co-star matching up well. (In her disfavor, though, is using the grammatically incorrect "wronger," which might have been Oliansky but might have been her improvising, though Oliansky ultimately approved it.) Cinematographer Richard H. Kline gives us fine visuals without ever going Masterpiece Theater on us considering the surroundings, and the acute editor David E. Blewitt deftly segues from one expressive shot of piano-playing to the other. Going in I didn't exactly expect the greatest time in the world with "The Composition," but by and large that's thankfully what I got. There's solid supporting work from Lee Remick, as Heidi's world-famous teacher, Sam Wanamaker, as an egocentric martinet of a conductor, and Jerry DiSalvo, as a Bronx-born reform-school delinquent who learned to play in prison. But it's Dreyfuss and Irving who seal the deal, and they more than deliver - they convince as destined soulmates, and make the movie as good a Valentine Day's treat as any Hollywood has had to offer as of late.

Unfortunately, no Blu-Ray release yet.

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originally posted: 11/20/20 11:45:54
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USA
  03-Dec-1980 (PG)

UK
  N/A

Australia
  N/A


Directed by
  Joel Olienski

Written by
  Joel Olienski

Cast
  Richard Dreyfuss
  Army Irving
  Lee Remick
  Sam Wanamaker
  Joseph Cali



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