[Screen It]

"LOVE & MERCY"
(2015) (John Cusack, Paul Dano) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A chronicle of the creative genius and descent into madness of Brian Wilson, the legendary singer and lead songwriter of the Beach Boys, told in two different time periods.
PLOT:
In the 1960s, the Beach Boys were one of the biggest pop-music groups in the world thanks largely to the songwriting talents of Brian Wilson (PAUL DANO). Looking to grow and mature from the band's earlier fun, fun, fun surfing and beach music, Wilson gets the inspiration to write an epic album that will become known as "Pet Sounds" that will feature longer tunes, more complex lyrics, multiple layers of music, sound effects, actual chatter, and more. While his brothers, Dennis (KENNY WORMALD) and Carl (BRETT DAVERN), embrace the change in direction, cousin Mike Love (JAKE ABEL) openly opposes the meandering, more downbeat songs Brian comes up with. Brian also comes under heavy criticism from his domineering, abusive father Murry (BILL CAMP).

Meanwhile, in the 1980s, we see the end result of Brian's (JOHN CUSACK) drug use, harsh upbringing, and fragile mental state. He has come under the control of an unscrupulous psychiatrist named Eugene Landy (PAUL GIAMATTI), who has misdiagnosed him as a paranoid schizophrenic, isolated him from his family and friends, taken over his career, and is bilking him out of thousands of dollars.

Fortunately, Brian meets and falls in love with Melinda (ELIZABETH BANKS), a pretty car saleswoman who comes to realize how deeply Eugene has embedded himself in the legendary musician's life. She rallies the support of Brian's live-in maid, Gloria (DIANA MARIA RIVA), and hatches a plan to pry him away from the doctor and get him on the road to recovery.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
Brian Wilson wrote more than just songs. He came up with generational touchstones. He came up with lyrics and melodies that people literally hear in their heads as they recall falling in love, going on beach trips with friends and families, and even when loved ones pass away. I have heard "God Only Knows" played at both at weddings and funerals. The same goes for "Wouldn't It Be Nice." His genius not only tapped into everything that he felt inside for life and past loves. The older he got, the more he wrote, the more intricate the songs became. He could certainly write a bubble-gum pop tune about surfing the waves or cruising in cars or just plain having fun, fun, fun. But he could also get inside the human psyche and pull out our deepest wants and needs for love, for connection, for shelter from a cruel and cynical world.

He wrote this stuff despite coming from a background of terrible mental and physical abuse at the hands of his father. He wrote this stuff despite a mental illness that caused him to hear voices in his head and to wig out when the sounds of an often-chaotic existence around him became too much. He wrote this stuff despite pressure from his family and fans to continue being brilliant. Few could understand how the great stuff just seemed to flow out of him. Even fewer could understand when the inspiration and the words and the melodies would not come.

"Love & Mercy" is a musical biopic that seeks to relate both the creative genius of Brian Wilson and his spiral downward into drug addiction and near madness. It does this by showing the artist at two distinct points of his life -- the first in the 1960s as he was writing the Beach Boys' masterpiece album, "Pet Sounds;" the second in the 1980s when he meets a pretty, young car saleswoman named Melinda (Elizabeth Banks), who comes to learn he is being used, abused, and isolated from his family and friends by an unscrupulous psychiatrist named Eugene (Paul Giamatti).

One of the hooks of the film is that Wilson is played by two different actors in the two time periods. In the '60s, he is portrayed by Paul Dano who is extremely impressive here in the flashier of the two time periods when Wilson is zipping around recording studios, assembling musicians, and riffing on notes, all the while dealing with a bitter father and a band of brothers and cousins who don't quite understand the change in musical direction he is pushing everyone in. With this role, Dano officially emerges in my book as one of the absolute finest, more daring actors working in film today. He doesn't seem to have any vanity on screen. He goes for broke, relishing playing deeply flawed, almost loathsome characters in such challenging films as "Prisoners, "12 Years a Slave" (how many name Hollywood actors would play THAT role), and "Looper." Here, he nails both Brian Wilson's genius and his mania.

In the '80s, Wilson is played by John Cusack. And he is not nearly as successful in his performance. True, it is the less showy time of Brian's life. Drugs had taken their toll by then, and he was much more quiet, introverted, and certainly damaged. Whereas Dano gets the entirety of Wilson's arc back in the '60s, Cusack seems to alternate between quite effective in the role and quite affected. We've seen Cusack's charm in countless rom-coms over the past three decades, and his time romancing Banks' Melinda comes off as strained and muted in spots where we really should be seeing a deep love blossoming between the two. But then, Cusack gets a meaty scene like the one in a restaurant where he remembers the beatings he received as a child and you're just wowed by the darkness the guy is able to conjure up.

It doesn't help that with the change in actors, director Bill Pohlad opts not to have any of the other people from Brian's life in the '60s show up in the '80s except in a couple of brief phone calls Melinda makes. He'd have either had to recast with other actors and caused some narrative confusion or put the actors portraying the other Beach Boys in aged makeup, which would have led to questions like "Why didn't you just have Dano play both roles?!"

So, whereas the '60s sequences offer a richly populated, kaleidoscopic world of Brian Wilson, the '80s are more of a three-character play with Cusack, Banks, and Paul Giamatti's frightening Dr. Eugene Landy. The performances are there. I just found myself perking up greatly when the film would cut to the "Pet Sounds" era and deflate a bit when the film cut back to the '80s.

Regardless, "Love & Mercy" is a mostly absorbing biopic, with top-notch tech credits (the sound design is exquisite), that will certainly appeal to Beach Boys and Brian Wilson fans and hopefully entertain those who weren't. Will Dano and Co. be remembered come award season later in the year? God only knows. Until then, I give the film a 7 out of 10. (T. Durgin)




Reviewed June 8, 2015 / Posted June 10, 2015


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