Love & Mercy

Posted by Joel Copling on June 5, 2015

There are moments of pure power within "Love & Mercy," and though the whole is unfortunately not equal to them, it's still a solid piece of filmmaking. The screenplay by Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner (based on a book written by the latter) wants simultaneously to hit all the hallmarks of a conventional biopic about Beach Boys frontman Brian Wilson's formative years as a young musical prodigy whose mind was affected by years of childhood torment and to chronicle the steps taken, years later, to forcibly extricate him from what was also a tormented adulthood. The result is something about which to be on the proverbial fence, but there is highly affecting stuff here and enough of it to work.

The film is really two of them, set in different periods of Brian's life. His younger self, played by Paul Dano, is preparing the commercially unsuccessful cult-favorite-in-the-making Pet Sounds with the other members of the band, including his two brothers, Dennis and Carl (Kenny Wormald and Brett Davern), their cousin Mike Love (Jake Abel), and their mutual friend Al Jardine (Graham Rogers). The music of their band, the Beach Boys, is solidly used as both subject of montages (such as during the opening credits) and soundtrack to Brian's auditory hallucinations (particularly disorienting, especially as they grow louder with each instance).

Dano's performance as Brian is excellent in its own right, and the actor is given the better material with which to work for the character. Brian's heated relationship with his father Murry (Bill Camp) gets a pair of sequences that immediately tell us what kind of a man he was (He was fired by his own sons and nephew as their manager, but who can blame them when he sells the rights to their songs to another publisher under the ironic pretense that no one would remember the Beach Boys within a few years?). The band themselves meet some interrelational difficulties when it is clear that Brian is losing his mind and his nerve, at one point spending two hours perfecting an already perfect track.

The lesser material comes from the present-day setting (or, at least, present-day in relation to the younger Brian's thread), in which the older Brian, played by John Cusack, meets Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) as a Cadillac dealership. She falls in love with him despite his difficulties (paranoid schizophrenia, says his doctor Eugene Landy, played by a frightening Paul Giamatti), and the two strike up a romance based on mutual respect. Landy, however, is the Doctor from Hell (and, despite Giamatti's performance, not much more than that), and their story becomes a series of attempts to get away from him, clouding any impact that Cusack's performance might have.

But "Love & Mercy" works, in large part due to director Bill Pohlad's confidence in how he stages his two stories and in the obvious melodrama that arises from both threads. There is also the obvious attribute of studying how the past affects the present, which is summed up in an affecting visual motif near the end of the third act. Dino Jonsater's editing might cut jarringly between each time frame, but Robert D. Yeoman's cinematography is rich and alive, Atticus Ross's score is indelible in and around the soundtrack, and the makeup and costume designers are clearly on top of things. One kind of wishes there was a better gauge of the scenes set in the present timeframe, but when so much else works, it almost doesn't matter.

Film Information

John Cusack (Brian Wilson), Paul Dano (Younger Brian), Elizabeth Banks (Melinda Ledbetter), Paul Giamatti (Dr. Eugene Landy), Jake Abel (Mike Love), Bill Camp (Murry Wilson), Kenny Wormald (Dennis Wilson), Max Schneider (Van Dyke Parks), Graham Rogers (Al Jardine), Brett Davern (Carl Wilson), Erin Darke (Marilyn Wilson), Dee Wallace (Rosemary).

Directed by Bill Pohlad and written by Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner, based on the book "Heroes and Villains" by Lerner.

Rated PG-13 (thematic elements, drug content, language).

120 minutes.

Released on June 5, 2015.