In Love & Mercy, director Bill Pohlad takes a look at two periods in the life of Brian Wilson, alternating between the two with ease and grace. In the 1960s, Wilson (Paul Dano) is dealing with the emergence of acts like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones on the scene and his own sort of mental breakdown. Wilson is attempting to construct new music with unique sounds, but there's a lot of backlash from members of the band, especially Mike Love (Jake Abel). Despite his strong work on Pet Sounds (an album now regarded as a masterpiece), sales are down and Wilson needs to find a hit fast to appease both his band members and his family. At the same time, the voices are beginning to pop into Wilson's head, he's gaining weight fast and his full-on collapse is starting.
The other time period is the 1980s where Wilson is now attempting a career resurgence. He's been dormant for years, but Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) has brought him back to the world and is trying to get Brian to restart his career. He meets the beautiful Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) and the two fall quickly for each other. But something is off- Brian is still sick and is being manipulated and controlled by Landy, who may have some despicable motives. Ledbetter must help Brian break free from Landy's control, and in the process, help him regain his sanity.
Unfortunately, the one downside to this structure is that the story for Paul Dano's Brian Wilson has to end on a down note. Cusack's Wilson of course has his rebound and ends up doing great, but the last time we see Dano's Brian, he's 300 pounds in bed with voices running through his head. Throughout the film, I knew that was coming and I sorta wondered if the movie would have been more intriguing if the story was told with a linear structure. The contrasts wouldn't have been as strong, but the movie might have worked better in some ways.
Alternating structure or not, the performances in this film work so phenomenally. Paul Dano does an excellent job of portraying the younger Wilson, perfectly channeling his energy, his enthusiasm and the dark side that encompassed him. Dano's storyline doesn't receive much of an ending, but he does a great job of portraying both the highs and the lows of his character. In the 1960s time frame of the film, Jake Abel's Mike Love is the only other character who really gets much screen time. I don't know why filmmakers are so insistent on having Abel jerks in every movie, but he's a despicable character again in Love & Mercy. Mike has tender moments, just not enough to say that he's a good guy.
Jumping ahead to the 1980s, Elizabeth Banks and Paul Giamatti are both incredibly impressive as Melinda and Gene, respectively. Melinda's sweet and well-developed relationship with Brian is exceptionally handled, and Banks does a very good job. And Giamatti once again proves why he is one of the best character actors alive. The guy can be sweet and lovable, but man, he plays some nasty, disgusting characters sometimes. Landy is one of those horrible characters and boy, Giamatti does a great job of making him a convincing villain. But the real star of the show is John Cusack, and if he doesn't get some buzz come Oscar season, I'll be shocked. Cusack's Wilson is a good man, stuck in an unhealthy relationship. Cusack portrays that charm, but also that vulnerability, with exceptional ease. It's a towering performance and one of the best I've ever seen from him.
Bill Pohlad also puts forth a stunningly good directorial effort here, perfectly capturing the terror of being insane and the joy of making music. While I was watching the movie, I was stunned by the authenticity of the studio scenes, which made sense when I later read that they were filmed with an "unrehearsed pseudo-documentary style with two 16mm handheld cameras" to better capture the feel of the recordings. Individual scenes in Love & Mercy crackle with a strong mixture of beauty and intensity, and there were times where I was mesmerized by what was on screen. Pohlad has directed only one film before (nearly 25 years ago) but I have a feeling that we'll be seeing more of him.
Ultimately, the film works in the way that it needs to. Pohlad and the actors do a good job of mixing the music with the human drama, and I was consistently compelled throughout this film. However, Love & Mercy is far from perfect. It's so close to being great that it's painful. Even though the film clocks in at a compact 120 minutes, it drags in spots and there were times that I found myself getting bored. The third act wraps up the loose ties well, but I think that there were some times where the fat could have been trimmed. And for Beach Boys fans, I have a feeling that they might be a bit disappointed- this isn't a biopic of the band, it's pretty much the Brian Wilson story. Not necessarily a letdown for me, but just an interesting note.
For fans of the music biopic, Love & Mercy is another strong entry into the canon. Led by a fascinating directorial talent and two stunning performances, this is good counter-programming for the start of the summer movie season. I didn't fall head over heels for this movie, but I enjoyed myself and I think that most people will too. While there are moments and scenes that are masterful, the film itself settles for rock solid- with a little bit more work, it could have been a true cinematic achievement.
THE FINAL GRADE: B+ (7.8/10)