Thomas has a problem.
His father, Robert, is a slumlord and a thug with a mop of stringy yellow hair and an ever-present piss-yellow blazer doing little to dignify his unkempt appearance.
Theirs is what you might call a dysfunctional relationship, with Robert (Niels Arestrup) playing up his age and weakness to get Thomas (Romain Duris) to rough up a tenant who hasn't been paying his rent.
Against his better judgment, Thomas succumbs again and again to his father's emotional riptide, which keeps pulling Thomas back to him.
When he's not under dad's thumb, Thomas works an equally despicable job as a hired bully who kicks immigrants out of expensive apartments slated for resale. In one instance, he releases rats into a building to drive the tenants out.
But Thomas has dreams. His dead mother was a concert pianist, inexplicably married to the vulgar, troll-like Robert.
Trapped in his wiseguy world, Thomas longs for the depth and meaning of his mother's. Passing a concert hall, he spies his mother's former manager and finagles an audition, despite having not played the piano for the past 10 years.
The prospect of escape from his miserable life triggers something hopeful in Thomas, a Rocky-style transformative binge, where instead of raw egg drinks and butcher shop boxing, Thomas practices Bach and plays air-piano wherever he goes. He begins piano lessons with a Chinese immigrant, Miao Lin (Linh Dan Pham), who doesn't speak a word of French but whips Thomas' playing into shape.
And so goes the manufactured crawl from the gutter to the concert hall in this manufactured, Flashdance-style drama.
But from the outset, viewers may have a hard time accepting Thomas' soulful keyboard stylings when he exhibits much more blood-pumping enthusiasm and charisma while creaming another thug at a nightclub or while bopping his head to the music that pumps constantly in his headphones.
It is very clear where director Jacques Audiard's real interests lie.
Taking some cues from the early Scorsese of Mean Streets, Audiard is a guy who loves the consummate male space of the barroom -- the slow-mo, self-destructive haze of guys flirting and brawling and drinking and forgetting their problems. When it comes time to convey the pull of the highbrow world, Audiard's powers of persuasion fail him.
Hollywood has proven the often disastrous formula of remaking European films for American audiences. But it apparently works both ways. The Beat That My Heart Skipped is a loose remake of James Toback's 1978 film Fingers starring Harvey Keitel as the bipolar ivory tinkler. But a premise as flimsy as Toback's hardly begs for another go around.
If it weren't for the charismatic, boyish appeal of Duris, a lanky sexpot with Britpop hair and a rubber grin, The Beat That My Heart Skipped would sink like a hunk of lead. Like Harvey Keitel in his youth, Duris has a raw masculine sex appeal with a sidecar of vulnerability that gives him substance.
More than anything, what ruins The Beat That My Heart Skipped is the general flakiness of the story; a ballad of the sensitive guy trapped in a tough guy's world. Piano playing as a stand-in for unspoken feelings and passions worked in The Piano, but in Audiard's film, it's an often unbearably hokey notion, especially since Thomas' true passions so clearly run toward techno and skirt-chasing.
The Beat That My Heart Skipped is reminiscent of all those gangland movies, from The Godfather: Part III to Bob Le Flambeur, where crooks try desperately to escape the thug's life.
Maybe they will. Maybe they won't. As Michael Corleone warns, "Just when I thought that I was out, they pull me back in."