It makes sense that “Love & Mercy” would be one of the oddest biopics ever made. Its subject, after all, is the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, one of the oddest, and most gifted, musicmakers America has ever produced.
The most daring thing about the film, directed by Bill Pohlad and written by Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner, is the casting. Wilson is played by two actors at different times in his career: Paul Dano in the mid-1960s and John Cusack in the mid-’80s. Neither actor, especially Cusack, looks anything like Wilson, but, if you can get beyond this – I found it surprisingly easy – you might find yourself thinking that this film could not have been done any other way. For one thing, it eliminates that awful old-age makeup thing that often sabotages biopics.
More unsettling, in some ways, is the way the filmmakers cut back and forth, often without warning, between the time periods. The effect is intended to be contrapuntal, or polyphonic, or whatever, but sometimes it’s just confusing. And yet, the unmoored quality of these temporal switcheroos fits Wilson’s encroaching emotional displacement. It puts you inside his fearful disorientations.
Dano’s Wilson is psychologically troubled but still able to function. Although the movie posits his father as a Freudian meanie – he disparages his son’s talents and sells off the rights to his music for less than
$1 million, assuming no one will remember him in a few years – Pohlad wisely never pinpoints the source of Wilson’s derangement.
The real villain of the piece is Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), Wilson’s personal psychologist and legal guardian. Landy keeps such a tight rein on Wilson (now played by Cusack) that he rightly regards a prospective girlfriend, Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), as a direct threat. (He orders her to report back to him on her dates with Wilson.)
Dano’s Wilson is happiest – least at the mercy of his agitations – when he is in the studio making music. The scene in which he orchestrates the famed Wrecking Crew musicians at a recording session for his great album “Pet Sounds” is more than exhilarating – it’s instructive. Even when he is playing by himself, putting together “God Only Knows” on the piano, Wilson is in a zone where his hurts can’t disable him.
Cusack’s Wilson, in the early stages, is almost zombified by his mental disorders (not to mention the meds Landy was prescribing). That’s why, when he spots Ledbetter in a car dealership and is smitten, he seems rejuvenated. She doesn’t even know he’s a Beach Boy when they first meet, so the point is made that she was not wowed by his fame – only, as it turns out, by his genius and his hangdog decency. His ultimate matchup with her (they are still married) gives an extra, retrospective layer of poignancy to “God Only Knows,” one of the most beautiful love songs ever written.
Movies about great artists are notoriously difficult to do well. The creative process is not easily dramatized. “Love & Mercy” doesn’t evade all the traps; at times it seems more like a stunt than a soul dive. But Dano and Cusack never let us forget that Wilson is human before he is anything else – genius, icon, legend. The film provides him with the succor that was so lacking in so many aspects of his life. I would like to think that the real Brian Wilson, looking at this film, would be OK with it. Grade: B+ (Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, drug content, and language.)