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Love & Mercy

#750 - Love & Mercy
Bill Pohlad, 2014

A biopic alternating between two different periods in the life of Brian Wilson, one of the founding members of the Beach Boys

Trying to come up with inventive variations on the biopic beyond the standard cradle-to-grave narrative is always a challenge, and Love & Mercy distinguishing itself by opting to cover two separate narratives concerning its subject instead of one. The film is about Brian Wilson, one of three brothers who helped to co-found the popular surf-rock group known as the Beach Boys. It constantly switches between Wilson during two different decades. One plot takes place in the mid-1960s and follows a young Wilson (Paul Dano) who opts out of touring with the rest of the band after experiencing a panic attack on an aeroplane; instead, he decides to begin working on producing new music while his bandmates are away. The end result is an ambitious collection of baroque pop songs that would eventually come to be known as Pet Sounds, which is now regarded as one of the best albums ever made but whose initial commercial failure fed into young Wilson's growing mental issues. The other plot takes place in the 1980s and sees a middle-aged Wilson (John Cusack) living an extremely mundane and unassuming life that is shaken up when he meets an attractive Cadillac dealer named Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks); however, their burgeoning relationship is threatening by domineering psychiatrist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), whose strict orders may be harming Wilson instead of helping him.

While neither one of these plots is strong enough to properly sustain a full two-hour drama, what makes Love & Mercy so distinctive is the way in which both sides of the film will complement one another. The Dano half goes for a straightforward behind-the-scenes dramatisation that shows how Wilson's creative process in crafting one of the greatest pop albums ever made attracted a fair bit of derision and skepticism; it definitely features its fair share of clichés in this regard, especially in having Wilson's bandmate Mike Love (Jake Abel) vocally contradict Wilson's actions at almost every turn. Conversely, the Cusack half plays out very much like A Beautiful Mind in its familiar tale of a psychologically tortured genius who ultimately depends on the love of a good woman to help see him through his trials. Neither plot is especially inventive and are factors that ultimately keep this film from being truly great, but director Pohlad is capable of infusing both sides with distinctive technique. Dano's half feels very down-to-earth with its candid fly-on-the-wall cinematography of studio scenes contrasting with uncomfortable visual exaggerations meant to evoke Wilson's troubled mind, while Cusack's half has a lack of fanciful technique that reflects the older Wilson's more relaxed (albeit heavily sedated) state of existence.

With the various narrative strands and the details within proving major hurdles for the film to overcome, it's just as well that the film is able to back it up with some fairly decent performances. Dano is easily the stand-out, perfectly embodying Wilson's paradoxically confident yet nervous disposition as he is alternately proud of and ashamed by his radical musical experimentation and the reactions that it provokes - and that's before he starts to experiment with drugs and experience greater and greater panic attacks. On the other hand, Cusack initially seems miscast as the older Wilson but his tendency not to act too hard outside of his comfort zone can arguably be seen as a representation of how Wilson is most definitely not himself while under Landy's supervision. Consummate character actor Giamatti delivers an appropriately unhinged performance as Landy, compensating for his character's fairly shallow development by properly throwing himself into playing such a superficially friendly but fundamentally vicious individual. Banks gets to play the straight woman who ultimately acts as Wilson's saviour, committing to what is arguably a rather basic role in the process. These are all major reasons why Love & Mercy is able to rise above its potentially limiting status as a biopic but their strength is not quite enough to make it great. The main quartet deliver solid performances and the film's at least somewhat interesting on a visual level (plus it has Oscar-winning composer Atticus Ross providing appropriately moody original music in between the sunny-sounding licensed songs) and it's definitely a decent film in just about every regard.