UK Release Date: 10th July 2015
Runtime: 121 minutes
Director: Bill Pohlad
Writer: Oren Moverman, Michael Alan Lerner
Starring: Paul Dano, John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti
Synopsis: Beach Boys visionary Brian Wilson is shown at two different periods of his life as he battles with his mental health and a manipulative therapist.
Brian Wilson is a musical genius. Today, few would doubt the legitimacy of that statement, but his magnum opus – Pet Sounds – was a major role of the creative dice when it was released in 1966. In Love & Mercy, director Bill Pohlad traces two periods of Wilson’s life, illuminating the mental state of a man who laid bare the complexity of his mind in song.
In the 1960s, Brian Wilson (Paul Dano) is disillusioned with the sound of the Beach Boys and seeks to create something new with ambitious album Pet Sounds. In the 1980s, a reclusive and awkward Wilson (John Cusack) is struggling with mental illness under the controlling, often possessive, care of Dr Landy (Paul Giamatti). One day, he meets Melinda (Elizabeth Banks), who encourages him to come out of his shell once again.
For those looking for an upbeat take on the rise of the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson will likely be disappointed by Love & Mercy. The film focuses only fleetingly on the band and is mostly geared towards exploring the complex and often fractured mental state of the man behind the music.
| "What if I lose it and never get it back? What would I do then?"
The film is an oddly structured one, hopping frequently between its two time periods and its two incarnations of the central character. This structure is both a blessing and a curse for Love & Mercy, which maintains an impressive pace as a result of never being in one place too long, but often suffers from leaving somewhere just as things get interesting.
Both portrayals of Wilson are great performances, only really hurt by the fact that Paul Dano and John Cusack bear absolutely no resemblance to each other and, as such, often feel like different characters. Dano, complete with weight gain, paints his Wilson as a paranoid genius, hopping around a recording studio in a desperate attempt to turn the voices in his head into sounds on a tape.
Cusack’s Wilson, however, has been completely hollowed out by time. Firmly in the grip of Paul Giamatti’s delightfully slimy therapist, Cusack portrays Wilson as a completely empty being, with only glimmers of his past glories shining through. That is until the arrival of Elizabeth Banks, who appears like an angel with shining hair and staunch morals. It’s in these moments that Love & Mercy replaces its dark, occasionally surreal, edge with blind hagiography.
| "We’re not surfers. We never have been, and real surfers don’t dig our music anyway."
It’s unfortunate that Love & Mercy is so inconsistent because, on the strength of its performances, it could have been one of the great music biopics. However, by the time it ambles to a distinctly lacklustre conclusion, the film has gone on just a little bit too long. Although, like its subject’s best work, the film is an imperfect mosaic of paranoia and trouble genius.
Pop or Poop?
As a look at the life of Brian Wilson, Love & Mercy deserves credit for its refusal to adhere to the straightforward format of the star biopic.
However, it’s the unusual structure of the film that is also its greatest curse, with Paul Dano’s remarkable performance feeling rather wasted as the film gives Cusack the best story beats.
It’s far from perfect, but Love & Mercy is a fitting and entertaining take on a genius and those around him.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.