Unobtrusively directed, hair-raisingly watchable, and aurally vivid, Love & Mercy is a sincere, uncomplicated journey of sanity, healing, and the fecklessness of the California dream; a deeply satisfying pop biopic with good vibrations. Sensitive and profound, it captures with few missteps the visceral power of the artist.
In the 1960s, young songwriter and recording savant Brian Wilson finds himself confronted with extraordinary success after scoring numerous hit records with The Beach Boys. As his grip on reality loosens, he resigns from concert touring and ventures into the studio, intent on producing the “greatest album ever made.” Later, in the 1980s, under the pharmacological and legal thrall of therapist Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), a broken, middle-aged Wilson (John Cusack) meets Cadillac saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), who becomes determined to save Wilson from Landy’s manipulation.
Cusack, in his best performance since the knockout duo of Being John Malkovich and High Fidelity, plays Wilson as a twitchy, tentative millionaire genius with the guilelessness of an abused puppy. He’s introspective, introverted, and dismissed into silence with a hard glance (he’s also limited by the tougher part and the fact that he looks almost nothing like Wilson). Dano, by contrast, lets it bleed, darting, simmering, exploding with genius. Dano has impressed before (Little Miss Sunshine, There Will Be Blood, Meek’s Cutoff), but he still surprises, nailing the pale, cute moon face, the smile with a hint of a grimace, the disarming spaciness. This is channeling of a very high order.
The main quartet of actors is inspired casting. Just watch Dano bark orders at cellists for three hours straight or rile up dogs in the studio to get a desired background effect for Pet Sounds that match the tracks in his head (the film is commendable for its dramatization of “God Only Knows” and “Good Vibrations” alone); then jump to Cusack at the piano, crumpled, calm, his voice barely above a whisper. Rarely are two actors so effective playing the same character while taking radically different approaches. Banks and Giamatti, also playing polar opposites, deserve credit for imbuing scenes both loud and small with breathtaking heartbreak and emotional acuteness.
Ray Charles in Ray. Johnny Cash in Walk the Line. Ian Curtis in Control. Bob Dylan in I’m Not There. And now Brian Wilson in Love & Mercy. It’s a hefty number of mixed-but-mostly-successful attempts to carve on-screen portraits of troubled musical legends. Co-writers Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner set this one apart with a decidedly unconventional structure that mimics the amorphous and bifurcated creative life of its subject. This clash of optimism and melancholy – the commingling of vision and disillusionment – perfectly represents the tortured soul of an artist at his peak, and twenty years afterwards.
Director Bill Pohlad and strike a relaxed, quirky vibe, and the opening credit sequence is giddily, woozily enthusiastic in its ode to the 1960s. God only knows how he pulled off this unwieldy minimalist-formalistic approach – or where contemporary music would be without Wilson’s bold and specific inclinations – but it’s wonderfully conceived and wonderfully realized, partly with help from Wes Anderson regular Robert Yeoman as cinematographer and David Fincher regular Atticus Ross as composer. He helps one hear where Wilson was coming from, what it was like to hear the world passing through his ears, how he obliterated the box that confined those around him.
The film lurches in its indecisive focus and suffers in its glorification of Wilson, descending at times from biography into hagiography. While Giamatti’s version of Landy remains believable even in its excesses, he lacks depth and the other characters appear haloed by comparison. The portrayal of mental illness is predictably (and inevitably) neat. Some aspects are a bit self-congratulatory, as when Pohlad times the credit release of “Directed by Bill Pohlad” to correspond with the band’s bowing (see the endings of Inglourious Basterds and Black Swan, where stylistic maestros Quentin Tarantino and Darren Aronofsky fall prey to similar attentive flourishes).
Love & Mercy is a fun, earnest tribute with a beautiful message and a fascinating story. It closes with multiple title cards, the last of which may be the most resounding textual conclusion to a film since The Social Network: “Pet Sounds is now considered one of the greatest albums of all time.” When asked for his opinion, the real-life Wilson called the film “very factual” and the actors “right on.” I can think of no higher praise. As Mozart – or Wilson – can tell you, from madness comes the greatest art.