A film review by Craig J. Koban October 2, 2015


2015, R, 120 mins.


Paul Dano as Brian Wilson  /  John Cusack as Brian Wilson - Older  /  Paul Giamatti as Dr. Eugene Landy  /  Elizabeth Banks as Melinda Ledbetter  /  Kenny Wormald as Dennis Wilson  /  Jake Abel as Mike Love  /  Erin Darke as Marilyn Wilson  /  Joanna Going as Audree Wilson  /  Brett Davern as Carl Wilson

Directed by Bill Pohlad  /  Written by Oren Moverman and Michael Lerner

It was once said of Catcher in the Rye: 

Bill Pohladís LOVE AND MERCY is unlike just about any other big screen musical biopic that Iíve seen.  

The film focuses on the life of one of the founding members of The Beach Boys in Brian Wilson, but to ostensibly label it as a Beach Boys biopic would be completely misleading.  Itís more of a piece centered on Wilson himself, compellingly told via two distinct vantage points (during the 1960ís and the 1980ís) and even has two accomplished actors in Paul Dano and John Cusack playing the iconic musician during those respective time periods.  In a way, LOVE AND MERCY is a parallel narrative that chronicles the younger Wilson with the older, the former showing tell tale signs of an emerging mental disorder and the latter displaying them more in full bloom.  The unconventional structure of the film sometimes betrays itself at times, but LOVE AND MERCY creates a powerfully complex portrait of one of popular musicís most significant contributors and pioneers. 

The film rickshaws back and forth Ė sometimes fluidly, sometimes awkwardly Ė from the 60ís to the 80ís, but itís held together immensely by the ample talents of its two main stars.  In the 60ís Wilson (Dano) is at the absolute pinnacle of his career in music as both a member of the Beach Boys and as an integral song writing force for them.  Performing on the stage in front of his legions of fans all over the world appears to maintain very little, if any, interest to Wilson.  Heís most comfortable when it comes to the behind-the-scenes aspect of making the music itself.  Despite the fact that his ex-manager and father (Bill Camp) provides next to no support for him and his music, Wilson pushes forward in hopes of creating the groupís ultimate magnum opus: "Pet Sounds".  Thereís some problems along the journey of this creative endeavor, though: Wilson suffers from a near paralyzing panic attack while on tour and, to make matters worse, he begins to hear voices in his head that makes his own sense of sanity come into question. 



The other timeline in the 80ís features the older Wilson (Cusack, in fine form, but nevertheless kind of distractingly dissimilar in physical appearance form both Dano and the real Wilson himself), whom seems like a shell of the younger man he used to be.  Having his mind and spirit ravaged by years of drug use and chronicle mental illness, Wilson is now under the constant 24/7 medicated care of Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti, proving here as he did in STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON what an empowered actor he can be even while sporting a hilariously fake looking wig).  Landy has a ďtake no prisonersĒ approach to treating Wilsonís apparent schizophrenia, which has the negative side effect of leaving the former pop icon in a perpetually zoned out haze.  There isnít a single moment of Wilsonís life thatís not micromanaged by his domineering doctor, but fate steps in when Wilson has a chance meeting with an attractive car salesman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) while shopping for a new Cadillac.  After one of the oddest meet cutes in modern movie history, Melinda and Wilson begin seeing each other, but she begins to see the obvious and damaging signs of Landyís intrusion in Wilsonís life, which leads to her doubting whether or not heís actually a positive conduit of change in his life. 

It could be said that since LOVE AND MERCY is about a man thatís potentially schizoid then it should also have an overall narrative structure thatís equally all over the map.  I still canít decide Ė even days after seeing this film Ė whether Michael Alan Lernerís and Oren Movermanís screenplay ultimately helps or hurts the overall handling of Wilsonís story.   On one hand, spontaneously jumping back and forth between the filmís two distinct timelines is kind of liberating and fascinating in approach, not to mention that it gives LOVE AND MERCY a forward thrust that many musical biopics Ė often stuck in pure expositional storytelling mode Ė often lack.  Yet, thereís no denying that the two timelines donít really coalesce as well as the writerís think they do: They're certainly linked by their shared characters and their struggles with mental breakdowns, but overall they feel oddly detached from each other.  Throughout most of LOVE AND MERCY I felt more like I was watching two films struggling to intersect with each other than I was one film with all of its divergent parts working harmoniously in tandem with one another.  

If I had to choose one period that I found most intriguing then it would be the Dano-centric Wilson years, mostly because of the manner than the actor fully immerses himself in the musician and reveals him to be a figure that strove to legitimately achieve artistic innovation in the face of mounting personal stresses.  It's during this period that LOVE AND MERCY taps into the complex art of making music perhaps better than any music biopic that Iíve seen.  The filmís depiction of the entire songwriting and music making process is boundlessly enthralling, showing Wilson frantically running through his studio while orchestrating dozens of musicians using seemingly incongruent instruments to create an auditory sensation not felt before in the medium.  Watching Danoís Wilson command everyone in his presence to comprehend and understand the bold and risky choices he was making to meticulously construct now legendary tunes like ďGood VibrationsĒ makes LOVE AND MERCY mesmerizing.  Thereís also a suggestion that Wilson created some of The Beach Boysí songs and their highly unique soundstages as a cathartic manner of dealing with his own hallucinations.  Either way, Dano is magnificent in portraying the increasingly unstable, but artistically ingenious Wilson throughout the film. 

Cusackís Wilson, on the other hand, never comes off as fully rendered or interesting as Danoís, mostly because, as mentioned, Cusack bares little resemblance to the real man heís portraying.  Nevertheless, Cusack does credibly evoke the pill-induced stupor that the elder Wilson went through with authentic strokes, showing a man trapped inwardly within the prison of his own mind and outwardly by the oppressively strict handling of his doctor.  Arguably, Giamattiís performance during this era of the film is the most thought provoking, seeing as tries to show Landy as a relatively kind and well meaning soul that happens to have his own psychological issues in terms of his obsessive-compulsive behavior directed towards overseeing Wilsonís treatment and life.  Giamatti is an actor thatís magnificent at coming off as both congenial and smarmy in his roles, and thatís no exception here; heís quietly intense and frightening as Landy. 

I have a considerable amount of respect for what LOVE AND MERCY was trying to do with its source material, but the main issues with the film, again, are with how it did it.  On one hand, itís a thoroughly satisfying and refreshingly unorthodox musical biopic, which is noteworthy seeing as the genre has been awash in overused troupes for far too long.  The film centers on what made artists like Wilson tick Ė in more ways than one Ė and how they managed to create musical masterpieces from the ground up.  LOVE AND MERCY is a very rare musical biopic that actually pays respect to the music crafting process itself.   I only wished that the filmís distinctive handling of its two time periods gelled together more finely and felt organically complete.  LOVE AND MERCY emerges almost as a two for the price of one filmgoing experience, but only one of those films truly works, leaving the overall effort feeling a bit too unwieldy for its own good.  However, as a stirring testament to the tormented life and times of Wilson, LOVE AND MERCY deserves to be seen, especially for showing him at the zenith of his artistic prowess and for rightfully showcasing what a seismic creative force he was in the 60ís that changed popular music forever. 

  H O M E