Brian Wilson has lived one of those lives that's much too big for a two-hour movie. His life story is a never-ending roller coaster ride of addiction and recovery, success and failure, musical brilliance and embarrassing career moves. Through it all, Wilson has remained one of the sweetest, strangest figures in the music industry – a deeply introverted enigma who transforms into an open book when he's singing (particularly since leaving The Beach Boys and launching his solo career). Wisely, the new Wilson biopic Love & Mercy doesn't attempt to stuff the entirety of Wilson's rocky journey into the mix. Instead, it zeroes in on two specific chapters in Wilson's life and permits the audience to fill in the blanks (most of them, anyway – there are bits of personal and professional history awkwardly stuffed into the dialogue every now and then). While there are individual scenes that feel disappointingly conventional and familiar, the larger structure is fresh enough to prevent the whole thing from feeling stale.
Roughly half of the film examines Wilson in the 1960s, where he's played by a perfectly-cast Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood). Here, we see the distinctive ideas that went into the creation of the magnificent Pet Sounds album, the creative battles with fellow band member Mike Love (who felt The Beach Boys should stay focused on girls, cars, surfing and summer), the wildly ambitious plans for Smile and the early meltdowns that would eventually derail Wilson's career.
The other half of the film looks at Wilson in the 1980s, where he's played by a less perfectly-cast (but still excellent) John Cusack (High Fidelity). After enduring years of drug addiction, a failed marriage and a host of crippling psychological problems, Brian has been placed in the care of the manipulative, greedy Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti, Sideways), who seems to be exploiting the musical legend for personal gain. When Brian begins developing a relationship with car salesperson Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks, The Hunger Games), Dr. Landy immediately attempts to find ways to set firm parameters for their budding romance. Melinda quickly begins to realize that Brian needs to be rescued, but she's uncertain of how to convince him (or his estranged family members) that Dr. Landy is a shady figure.
Rather than dividing itself into two separate hour-long parts, the film shifts back and forth between the two timelines. It's an effective approach, and the most ingenious thing about Bill Pohland's direction is the way he threads the two sides together with a carefully maintained emotional arc. The '60s and '80s scenes inform each other rather elegantly, fueled by a potent blend of now-legendary pop music and an impressively inventive Atticus Ross score (which makes an attempt at capturing the overwhelming cacophony of sounds whirling around in Brian's head).
Disappointingly, the film's expert pacing and unique structure is occasionally undercut by an unfortunate tendency to oversimplify things for the sake of dramatic expediency. Paul Giamatti is marvelously slimy as Dr. Landy (I'd expect nothing less from an actor of Giamatti's caliber), but the movie is so intent on ensuring that we see him as a monster that it never bothers trying to understand him. Likewise, the infamously prickly Mike Love (played here by Jake Abel, I Am Number Four) is presented as a simple-minded asshole who hates every original idea Wilson comes up with and attempts to thwart him whenever possible. The characterization isn't entirely off the mark, but from all I've read, reality was a bit more complicated than that.
Thankfully, Love & Mercy is much stronger when it comes to the depiction of characters it actually likes. Melinda is more compelling than your average love interest, as she's a character blessed with an atypical amount of self-awareness. She quickly falls for Brian, but she's also aware of the fact that she may simply by a little star-struck (“I grew up with your music!” she gushes). She wants to be with Brian, but she becomes increasingly cautious about being yet another person in his life who wants something from him. How does she help someone she cares about without being self-serving? Banks plays Melinda's inner conflict expertly, and there's something deeply touching about the way she handles her scenes with Cusack. Brian has a tendency to blurt out whatever he's thinking – sometimes it's sweet, sometimes it's uncomfortably personal and sometimes it's wildly inappropriate - but rather than correcting him or hastily changing the subject, Melinda just leans forward and listens. It's rare to have a person like that in your life.
The intriguing thing about the work Dano and Cusack do is that they aren't really trying to imitate each other in any prominent way. They capture Brian's spirit so effectively that it hardly matters that the specifics of their performances don't line up. Dano disappears into the role to a greater degree than Cusack does (if one of the two is going to be getting some awards attention, it'll likely be the former – Dano is nearly the spitting image of the prodigy he's playing), but their respective portraits of Brian mesh so beautifully that it's almost difficult to think of their work as two separate performances. They have entirely different abilities as actors, but both have often projected a sense of quiet intelligence and melancholy soulfulness. When we see footage of the real Brian Wilson performing “Love & Mercy” during the film's closing credits, we immediately recognize him as the man we've been watching for the past two hours. This isn't a great film, but the central performances are often remarkable enough to make you forget that.
Love & Mercy
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 121 minutes
Release Year: 2015