“Oh, the loneliness in this world / Well, it’s just not fair”
“Lonely. Scared. Frightened.”
If we take Bill Pohlad’s impressive Love & Mercy at face value – which is difficult to do with any biopic, particularly ones that are as complicated and complex as Pohlad’s feature – Beach Boy Brian Wilson wrote both of those lines during a fraught time in his life. The first lyric is taken from his song “Love And Mercy,” from which Pohlad’s film (obviously) takes its name, the second is scribbled on a note early in the feature. Both lines reflect the pain Wilson felt throughout his life, an emotional and mental ailing that eventually pushed the musical genius into a lifestyle that approached that of a recluse, a captive and a victim.
The story of the Beach Boys proper has been put to the screen before, but Pohlad’s film (beautifully scripted by Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner) is concerned with Wilson, the unofficial leader of the band and its primary songwriter during its most successful years. Wilson, for all his success and genius (and a lot of that is on display in the film, an addition that will please Wilson’s fans and help clarify the depth of his talent to viewers who are perhaps not familiar with him), has long suffered from anxiety attacks and auditory hallucinations (he hears voices, to put it crassly), and Pohlad’s film traces the beginning of those issues up through their unexpected consequences with care and respect. The film doesn’t skimp on showing Wilson at work, dedicating a large chunk of its first half to chronicling the making of the seminal “Pet Sounds” album, and are often treated to watching both Wilson and the Beach Boys at work.
Paul Dano is tasked with playing Wilson in his younger years (mostly after the Beach Boys have already reached international acclaim, with the majority of his scenes taking place immediately before, during and right after the creation of “Pet Sounds”), while John Cusack takes over during sections devoted to the late eighties. Dano and Cusack both do something quite special here, and while each of their performances are stellar and fine-tuned enough as single works (despite the nature of the feature, their different Brian Wilsons really do seem like complete performances), watching them together is compelling stuff. Neither actor appears to be doing rote impersonations of either their subject or each other, and the result is a complex and beautifully performed total picture of a true genius.
Love & Mercy may be built on its headlining talent, but Pohlad has also snagged a solid supporting cast to aid Dano and Cusack. Elizabeth Banks makes out quite well, infusing her layered performance as Wilson’s second wife Melinda with humor and humanity. The rest of the Beach Boys, particularly Jake Abel as Mike Love, embody their performances without hedging into unskilled impersonation or easy shorthand. Although the true villain of Love & Mercy is mental illness, Paul Giamatti’s power-mad Dr. Eugene Landy (who was Wilson’s legal guardian for a number of years) stomps around in far more visible ways. Giamatti’s work as the nefarious Landy is often too broad, especially when he’s bursting out into any number of unhinged screaming fits, and his smaller and quieter moments are far more effective at telegraphing his true nature.
Wilson’s troubles are addressed in an admirably plain-faced manner, and Pohlad doesn’t push either Cusack or Dano to play their Wilsons in an overly or affected showy manner, nor does he sugarcoat what’s really happening inside Brian’s brain. This isn’t a brutal biopic, but instead one that aims for gradual and graceful heartbreak. Pohlad is, however, guilty of piling on some ambitious (and just sort of strange) sequences near the film’s conclusion, the kind that blend the dueling Wilsons in a literal ways, resulting in a series of musically intriguing but emotionally simplified scenes.
The film is only Pohlad’s second feature – he previously directed the relatively little-seen 1990 drama Old Explorers — and the super-producer (Pohlad has shepherded such films as Into the Wild, 12 Years a Slave and The Tree of Life to the big screen) approaches his new career path with artistry and sensitivity. Love & Mercy is by no means a vanity project, and Pohlad isn’t softballing things here – this is a big accomplishment for any director, least of all one that’s relatively green behind the camera. If this is the kind of work he’s capable and interested in making, we can only hope that Pohlad is already queuing up a brand new cinematic opus.
The Upside: Paul Dano and John Cusack both turn in excellent performances, Elizabeth Banks demonstrates solid dramatic chops, excellent music, a rich and compelling spin on the biopic genre.
The Downside: Paul Giamatti’s performance is occasionally too broad to really spark, some of the film’s more ambitious and weird sequences feel inserted just to add an arty factor.
On the Side: A Brian Wilson biopic (also titled Love & Mercy) was originally planned for the late eighties, with William Hurt set to play Wilson and Richard Dreyfuss on board as Landy.