It’s a testament to Tim Roth’s sheer grace and adaptability that The Legend of 1900—a fanciful tale of a baby born at sea who grows up to be a piano virtuoso—doesn’t run aground as often as it should. Wading through pools of icky sentiment, Roth remains charismatic and improbably serene, fine-tuning his performance for maximum resonance and comedy. He’s also confident enough to avoid signaling his superiority to the material. In fact, Roth’s tacit respect for the prevailing hokeyness might be the most moving thing about the film.
Adapted by Giuseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paradiso) from a stage monologue and novel by Alessandro Barrico, The Legend of 1900 is what is often euphemistically called an old-fashioned movie—meaning it’s pretty, unwieldy, and glazed with enough fake emotion to earn it a Foreign Film Oscar (indeed, you keep forgetting the movie is in English). Though the premise is vaguely magic-realist, the mode is less mystic than misty. An infant is discovered atop a grand piano in the ballroom of a transatlantic liner and named for the year of his birth. Played as an adult by Roth, the prodigiously talented 1900 spends his life on the Virginian shuttling between New York and Southampton as house-band pianist and resident legend. His story unfolds in flashback, told by trumpeter ex-bandmate Max (Pruitt Taylor Vince), who’s trying to postpone the demolition of the ship because he’s convinced that his friend is still on board. Turns out that, like all musical geniuses in movies, 1900 suffers a life-threatening affliction—in his case, a paralyzing inability to set foot on land.
Tornatore’s lazy structure leaves the movie disproportionately reliant on set pieces. The most outrageous ones work best: Max and 1900 sit at the piano as it slides across the room, crashes through a window, and rumbles down a corridor; an absurdly dramatic duel between 1900 and a disdainful Jelly Roll Morton (Clarence Williams III). Cinematographer Lajos Koltai lavishes the requisite attention on period finery (and on the looming Manhattan skyline), but Roth’s heavy-lidded, mournful eyes provide the film with its most enduring image. It’s not clear if 1900’s condition is agoraphobia or a more generalized existential despair, but Roth somehow makes it poignant, even pulling off a climactic declamation that requires him to compare the big bad scary world with the “infinite keys” on “God’s piano.”
— Another case study of pathological denial, the protagonist of the black-and-white indie Man of the Century believes he was born in 1900 (or thereabouts). The joke is, he lives in 1999. Johnnie Twennies (played by the film’s cowriter Gibson Frazier) is a newspaper man with a quaint way with words, a rat-tat-tat delivery, and what the movie seems to think of as 1920s values—though he’s not so much gentlemanly as sexless and weird. Johnnie’s seamless delusion is never explained, which is perhaps just as well, and the film uses it as an excuse for affectionate musical numbers and much pseudo-screwball anachronist comedy. Johnnie has a girlfriend who works in a Soho art gallery, Johnnie is assigned to work with a gay photographer, Johnnie baffles gangsters with his fearlessness and integrity. Good-natured but labored, the film clings to its lone gimmick with increasing desperation. By the mechanically farcical conclusion (all the characters are thrown together for a big-band blowout), the whimsy has long curdled.