Starring Paul Dano, John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks, and Paul Giamatti
My rating: ★★★ stars
Standard biopic elevated by performances.
I can imagine at least six different approaches to making a biographical film about Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys. The lives of the men and the 50+ year career of the group offer enough fascinating material to keep a roomful of a screenwriters occupied for a decade or so. Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy has chosen a narrow focus—concentrating on two transitional periods in Brian Wilson’s life.
The first, during which Wilson is played by Paul Dano, involves Wilson’s creation of the landmark album Pet Sounds and his descent into mental illness. The second, featuring John Cusack as Wilson, covers Wilson’s domination by and eventual liberation from the control of unscrupulous psychologist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti, in an excellent performance) and Wilson’s meeting and courtship of his second wife Melinda (Elizabeth Banks).
Key to the success of the film are the performances of Dano and Cusack. Dano’s performance as the younger version of Brian is perfect; he continues to prove he’s one of the most compelling and versatile young actors now. Cusack’s performance is less electric, but his more subdued tone fits with that stage in Wilson’s life. When Cusack plays him, Wilson is timid, unengaged, and overmedicated.
One nagging problem is the lack of resemblance between Dano and Cusack. While Dano does a good job of weaving many of Cusack’s established mannerisms into his creation of Wilson, the two Brians never seem like they are the same person. As much as I kept telling myself that these were supposed to be the same guy, I never believed it. The film would have been better off by aging Dano to play the older Wilson. Two actors playing the role comes off as an ineffective gimmick.
This problem was compounded by the lack of continuity of other characters in Wilson’s life. Of course, part of the point of the second period that the film covers is that Landy has isolated Wilson from everyone he knew. But the film had an opportunity to bring in, at the very least, Carl Wilson, Brian’s brother and bandmate, and doesn’t.
As interesting as the story is, the film never breaks out of many biopic clichés, right down to the end when text appears on the screen telling us how great the subject’s triumph over adversity was. As in many biopics, a key source of conflict is the fact that the subject’s associates don’t appreciate the genius of his vision. In this case, the main adversarial voice is that of Mike Love (Jake Abel), who wants to continue with the type of music that made The Beach Boys successful. We viewers understand that Love is horribly narrow-minded and stuck in the past because we know from past biopics that those are the shortcomings that characterize the protagonists’ adversaries.
Yes, in real life, Love and Brian Wilson’s relationship became strained, and Love may have taken the position he advocates the film—that of commercial success over artistic experimentation. However, the film could have made the representation more nuanced and original. The strife between Love and Wilson is more complex than is depicted. Certainly, the film could have given the other members of group personalities and positions of their own. We never get a sense of what Dennis (Kenny Wormald) and Carl Wilson (Brett Davern), Brian’s brothers, feel about him or his music. Al Jardine (Graham Rogers) doesn’t seem to have a single line in the movie—at least not one that I noticed.
The movie would have been improved by spending more time with the group, fleshing out their characters, and less time on Wilson’s future wife, Melinda. Like the recent biopic The Theory of Everything, the wife character, representing the least interesting aspect of the subject’s life, is given far too much attention.
Despite these flaws, Love & Mercy presents a captivating subject. Viewers should be able to overlook the film’s shortcomings and become engrossed in the character, the performances, and the music.