Brian Wilson’s life is too big for a movie. The story of the brilliant and troubled co-founder of The Beach Boys barely lends itself to a coherent linear narrative, let alone a single film. Thankfully “Love & Mercy” doesn’t attempt to cover it all, or even most of it.
Instead, director Bill Pohlad’s film focuses in on two moments in Wilson’s life: One of creation and destruction, as Wilson conceives of the group’s transformative “Pet Sounds” album, and one of rebirth two decades later.
Even these stories are a bit ambitious for a two hour film, but Pohlad’s carefully woven vignettes manage to hit the necessary notes and explode expectations of what a biopic can and should be. It’s a feat that will likely satisfy those who know Wilson’s story all too well, while also whetting the appetite (and dropping the jaws) of those who don’t.
In telling the two stories, Pohlad made the bold artistic choice to cast two different actors to portray Wilson: Paul Dano and John Cusack. While Dano and Cusack could hardly pass for distant cousins, let alone the same man a few decades and a lot of drugs later, it’s a technique that helps to further separate “Love & Mercy” from any allegiance to a just-the-facts narrative.
The 1960s story meets up with Wilson and The Beach Boys after their early successes at the moment he decides to forgo their Japan tour to stay home and write. Many of the most invigorating scenes in the film take place in the recording studio as Wilson pushes the famed session musicians The Wrecking Crew past their musical comfort zones and into something bold and new. What emerges are the tracks for “Pet Sounds.”
Now so laced in our collective consciousness, it’s fascinating to watch Wilson bicker with Mike Love (Jake Abel) and his father (Bill Camp) over whether or not he’s gone too far astray from the peppy “surfer sounds” of their early work.
“Surfers don’t even like our music,” says Wilson defensively at one point.
Dennis Wilson (Kenny Wormald), the only actual surfer in the group, chimes in between puffs with a perfectly timed “they don’t.”
And then Wilson does LSD for the first time and things take a turn as his auditory hallucinations begin to manifest and his already fraught working relationship with Love sours.
The 1980s find a very altered Wilson, broken by drugs, mental illness and despair following the bizarre death of his brother Dennis. Pohlad focuses the story on the beginnings of his relationship with his now-wife, Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks). They meet cute inside a showroom Cadillac, before Melinda even realizes who he is and what he’s become. The audience slowly discovers the peculiarities of Wilson’s relationship with the controversial, 24-hour therapist Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) as Melinda does.
Bedecked in shoulder pads, cinched-waist dresses and pumps, Banks delivers an outstanding performance as the beautiful Cadillac saleswoman who finds herself in the unenviable position of being the only person driven enough to try to wrest Wilson from Landry’s hold. Subtle but powerful, Banks conveys Melinda’s perception of the complicated situation with just a glance — even as Giamatti’s Landy goes full pit bull on her. “Love & Mercy” proves that she is capable of more than comedy, and hopefully a wider range of roles will follow.
For his part, Cusack might not wholly disappear into the role, but it is a profound and occasionally heartbreaking portrayal of a man at his most disconnected. It’s also Cusack’s best work in ages.
Dano, meanwhile, is utterly perfect as the tortured but still-hopeful creative genius on the brink of psychosis.
“Love & Mercy” might not go as deep, or as dark, as it could, but it’s a commanding and artful film, that’s full of excellent and worthy performances whether you’re a student of Brian Wilson or just a curious tourist.
“Love and Mercy,” a Roadside Attractions release, is rated PG-13 for “thematic elements, drug content and language.” Running time: 120 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
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