Love & Mercy (2014)

Love & Mercy (2014)
  • Time: 120 min
  • Genre: Biography | Drama | Music
  • Director: Bill Pohlad
  • Cast: John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti


In the 1960s, Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson struggles with emerging psychosis as he attempts to craft his avant-garde pop masterpiece. In the 1980s, he is a broken, confused man under the 24-hour watch of shady therapist Dr. Eugene Landy.


  • (Rating: ☆☆ ½ out of 4)

    This film is mildly recommended.

    In brief: With all its fits and starts, Love & Mercy rarely takes off.

    GRADE: B-  

    Any biopic has the distinct purpose of showcasing its source and the unfathomable obstacles that made this person so significant in our lives. Most are formulaic, based on some factual information with much conjecture, and sentimental manipulative efforts (a bad childhood, a special talent, the highs and lows of a substantial career, etc.) while some, actually very few, are able to be an honest and moving testament to that human being. Love & Mercy, the story of Brian Wilson on Beach Boy fame, does many things right, but it is still standard storytelling that boast a strong performance from one of its actors playing this tortured musician.

    Yes, one of the actors. There are two actors cast to play Brian Wilson: Paul Dano depicting Brian (Past) as the tortured musical genius and John Cusack is Brian (Future) in his more depressed and sadder mental condition in later years. This idea, of using two physically different people to inhabit one man, may seem a bit daring and creative to many (although the same device was used to ill effect in Bob Dylan’s 2007 film biography, I’m Not There, coincidentally written by that same screenwriter, Oren Moverman, with help from Michael Alan Lerner ), but the final result is more foolhardy than inspiring.

    Director Bill Pohlad is only partly successful with this film. He overdoes the artsy self-conscious camera movement and jumpy editing techniques. It’s hard to pinpoint the real problem, if the cause lies squarely with the director, the two actors impersonating one man concept, or a very conventional script that rarely shows any depth of character as it freely bounces from Brian to Brian in full AAHD mode. The moviegoer is never allowed to settle into one storyline, past or future, long enough before thrown into another scene due to the film’s time-traveling format.

    This casting stunt is jarring. Dano is just fine as the young Wilson. He captures the recklessness and euphoria of a creative artist gaining notoriety and plagued with self-doubt. The actor makes subtle choices to show the madness settling in while his obsessive musical talent pulls him further from reality. Mr. Dano even resembles Wilson which helps, but he never resembles John Cusack, which doesn’t. Granted, Cusack has the more difficult role showing a man overmedicated and in a zombielike existence, dealing with his mental illness and emotional anguish, but he doesn’t resemble Dano or Wilson in the least. There is no physical connection, no vocal similarities or mannerisms between the two actors. Cusack never finds the nuance of his character. Some of his scenes work very effectively, most do not, due to the actor’s inability to fade into his role. Dano succeeds most effectively.

    There is also a wonderful supporting performance by Elizabeth Banks as Wilson’s love interest which helps the film immensely and an odd one-dimensional one delivered by the usually reliable Paul Giamatti as Wilson’s duplicitous manager and caretaker, Dr. Eugene Landy. Perhaps his wig proved too clownish for the actor to focus on his craft. (I know I had trouble focusing.) Also doing credible work are Bill Camp as Wilson’s abusive father and Jake Abel as Mike Love.

    The film has enough interesting moments that shine in this bi-polar movie, particularly when Pohlad deftly handles the behind-the-scenes studio sessions of Good Vibrations and Pet Sounds. One wishes there were more attention and screen time paid for these and other musical interludes rather that the short musical snippets and hurried melodrama we are given, not to mention an ending that ties up all its loose ends with title cards explaining the fate of its characters (another example of sloppy writing).

    God Only Knows, with Dano solely playing Wilson, further rewrites, and a more linear structured story, Love & Mercy could have really worked. And Wouldn’t That Be Nice.

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  • Brian Wilson, the creative genius behind the Beach Boys, has had quite the life. His triumphs and tribulations could handily power half a dozen films. Love & Mercy, the outstanding biopic of this troubled man, avoids condensing the milestones into a digestive running time, and instead chooses to tell his story in two parallel narratives.

    At the onset of the first narrative, which roughly covers the period from 1965 – 1969, the Beach Boys are at the height of popularity, their layered harmonies celebrating love, happiness and endless summers providing the soundtracks to their listeners’ lives. The young Brian (Paul Dano), however, would rather be the man behind the music than performing on tour. After experiencing a panic attack during a flight, he convinces the rest of the band to continue on the Japanese leg of their tour without him. Citing the creative leap taken by The Beatles with Rubber Soul, he argues that they cannot allow themselves to be overtaken. “I can take us further,” he promises, but only if they let him stay behind. They do, warning him to keep his head on straight, and he embarks on what would eventually be Pet Sounds, widely considered to be one of the most influential works in the history of music.

    Unlike most films of this ilk, Love & Mercy does not skimp on the process of creation. If anything, it exalts in the methods of Brian’s madness as he imparts his vision to the collective of studio musicians known as the Wrecking Crew. Aficionados and neophytes alike will delight as Brian lays down the precise number of bobby pins on the strings of a piano to extract the precise sound, incorporates a musician’s accidental playing of a note, and even directs the barking of his dogs. A cello passage from “Good Vibrations” is repeated again and again until the desired effect is achieved…three hours later. Brian is no dictator – drummer Hal Blaine bolsters Brian’s shaky confidence by touchingly telling him that the Wrecking Crew have worked with every possible star in the industry and Brian is, far and away, the best of the lot – but it becomes all too clear to the fellow Beach Boys, especially cousin Mike Love (Jake Abel), that they are becoming mere vocal instruments in the Brian Wilson Band.

    Adding to Brian’s stress is the band’s general consensus that his latest tracks have strayed too far from the Beach Boys’ template. “Even the happy songs are sad,” Mike complains. Meanwhile, there is the guilt Brian harbours over firing his father Murry (Bill Camp) as the band’s manager. It was his father, after all, who spurred him to writing better songs with his cutting, hard-to-please nature. Of “God Only Knows,” which Paul McCartney declared as his favourite song of all-time, Brian’s father deems it too wishy-washy and dismisses it as a suicide note disguised as a song.

    A similarly sinister father figure dominates the second narrative, set in the 1980s when the older Brian (John Cusack) was a broken man, heavily medicated and severely under the control of his therapist Eugene Landy (a fearsome Paul Giamatti). “I am the control,” he tells Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), the former model turned Cadillac dealer who would go on to be Brian’s second wife, before he lays down the rules for her seeing Brian: Tell me everything you do, everything he does, everything you say, everything he says. Brian seems cognizant of Eugene’s unhealthy involvement in all aspects of his life but is highly incapable of severing ties despite Melinda’s efforts to emancipate him.

    Banks, always a firecracker of a presence, does some impressively subtle work here. Melinda recognises the gentle soul beneath the fractured and barely functional shell of a man, but is rightly stunned when the disarmingly honest Brian, with horrifying detachment, outlines the difference between the sound of a regular spanking and the sound of the beatings he received from his father (one such beating allegedly caused significant hearing loss in one ear). Banks also invigorates Cusack, whose portrayal is undoubtedly his best in years. What’s particularly remarkable is how of a piece Cusack and Dano’s performances are. When the real-life Brian Wilson closes the film with his intonation of the film’s title, it does not feel jarring in the least. Both Cusack and Dano have captured not just his mannerisms, but his essence and spirit as well.

    Often films with bifurcated narratives contain an imbalance – one narrative tends to be more intriguing than the other – but that is not the case here. Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner’s screenplay weaves the strands of both narratives so seamlessly that they reinforce one another, acting as mirror images to reflect two pivotal moments when Brian Wilson was coming into his own, first as an artist and then as a man.

    Let the achievement of director Bill Pohlad not go unpraised. A well-respected producer (Tree of Life, 12 Years a Slave) with only one film (1990’s Old Explorer) as a director to his credit, Pohlad has a deceptively simple style that manages to marry flourish with formality. This is a film replete with retreat and confinement, yet never once does it feel claustrophobic. His manner of framing Brian just left or right of center elegantly conveys the musician’s emotional discombobulation. The unforced but emphatic symbolism of the band in the swimming pool, the boys gathered in the shallow end whilst Brian struggles to stay afloat in the deep end, never feels contrived, even with the boys’ punctuating line, “We’re too shallow for the deep end.”

    Vibrant and effervescent, tender and stirring, the sonically rich, handsomely photographed, fluidly edited Love & Mercy is a haunting masterwork of an artist and all his complications, a wunderkind who pushed himself beyond the limits and, most of all, a survivor who lived to tell the tale.

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