There's a ton of joy in "The Legend of 1900," the story of a piano prodigy, born on board a trans-Atlantic steamship, who never sets foot on land and eschews the fame his talent would normally lead to. But it's laid on so thick that one ends up more numbed than stirred, overcome by one too many Hallmark moments.
Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore is on familiar territory here. His movie love poem to a neighborhood film house, "Cinema Paradiso," tugged at many of the same heartstrings, and it was both a popular favorite and a Best Foreign Film Oscar winner for 1989. But there's not a magical moment in "Legend" to match the impromptu outdoor film screening in "Paradiso," nor a comic interlude to rival the church censor who objects every time a kiss is shown on screen.
The tale of 1900, so named because he's found as an infant inside the steamship Virginian's engine room just as the new century is dawning, is related in flashback by his one-time best friend, Max (Pruitt Taylor Vince, best known as the serial killer in TV's "Murder One"). Max's memory is jarred by two events: while visiting a pawn shop to hand over his beloved trumpet, he finds the piano 1900 used to play, and he discovers that the rusting heap that was once the Virginian is about to be scrapped.
There's an urgency to Max's tale. He's convinced 1900 is still on board and is afraid his friend is about to be blown to bits. So he starts talking to the owner of the scrap yard. And what emerges is a strange tale indeed.
Raised by a good-hearted stoker (Bill Nunn) and looked after by the entire ship's crew, 1900 grows up cute and spunky. And, it turns out, gifted.
After watching someone play the piano one evening, he nonchalantly sits down and begins playing as though he's always known how (Ennio Morricone's score steals the show).
Max boards ship a few years later; he and 1900 (played as an adult by Tim Roth) meet in the midst of some particularly rough seas, as the piano slides back and forth across the ballroom floor (a scene as silly as it sounds). Before long, they're the best of friends.
"The Legend of 1900" centers on two events: a piano duel between Jelly Roll Morton (Clarence Williams III, hamming it up), the self-styled originator of jazz, and 1900, whose reputation has made it to dry land, even if he hasn't.
The two engage in an invigorating game on one-upmanship, with results that could literally be called smokin'. It's the film's high point.
On the quieter side, there's Max's efforts to get 1900 to leave the ship. Such talent, he says, should not be reserved for the high seas. Besides, Max argues, doesn't 1900 want to raise a family, earn a living, exploit his talent?
In fact, he doesn't, until the film's second pivotal sequence, when a vision (the ethereally beautiful Melanie Thierry) walks off the ship, suggesting to 1900 that dry land does have its advantages.
Roth is equal parts naive, stubborn and smug as 1900; he knows he's good within the self-contained world he's inhabited all his life, but isn't willing to gamble that security by enlarging his horizons. And Vince makes for a good second banana, although he never manages to seem believable as a trumpet virtuoso.
If "The Legend of 1900" had been allowed to grow on its audience, rather than be thrust on it, the film would be a lot easier to like. But it's way too manipulative to be embraced without reservation, no matter how smokin' the music.
'Legend of 1900'
Starring Tim Roth and Pruitt Taylor Vince
Directed by Giuseppe Tornatore
Released by Fine Line Features
Rated R (Language)
Running time 119 minutes
Sun score: **1/2