Split into the dual eras of recording Pet Sounds in the 1960s and his disappearance from the public in the 1980s, Love & Mercy is an unconventionally refreshing biopic of Brian Wilson’s tumultuous life with and without The Beach Boys. However, while it's mostly able to portray the troubled musician's life, the film never quite lives up to the gigantic and unenviable task of dramatizing all of Wilson's simultaneous charismatic ambition and fragile psychology.
Known largely as an accomplished producer, Bill Pohlad directs a very atypical musical film about the messy life of Wilson rather confidently. While often more than difficult to watch, Paul Dano’s performance as the younger Wilson is particularly assured and troubling as is John Cusack’s believably detached yet manic portrayal of Wilson’s deteriorating mental state. Dano innocently captures Wilson's unusual creative artistry and genius echoed in his later unstable state under the supervision of the questionable Dr. Eugene Landy played very broadly by Paul Giamatti (because, of course).
Elizabeth Banks is superb and anchors the troubling later half as a Cadillac saleswoman and Brian's future wife, Melinda Ledbetter, who eventually saves him from himself and the dastardly Landy. She works well to humanize Cusack's inspired but offbeat performance as the Brian Wilson who's barely there but still clearly desperate to create and love.
Scripted by Oren Moverman from Michael A. Lerner's original script, the film's back and forth structure juggles different eras and actors stylistically with a unique but workmanlike approach. The dual storytelling mode is admirable but is almost as messy as Wilson's actual life was. Cusack's energy and reverence for the lost years is clear but occasionally indecipherable. The two performances work more than well enough on their own but their undeniable comparison feels problematic and intentionally inconsistent. It does more to mythologize Wilson's pop genius than explain or interpret it into any sense of a conventional narrative for both better and worse.
Despite a wealth of material and musical history, Love & Mercy feels more like two unfinished halves than one worthwhile whole of a film. It's hard to not to prefer the earlier half for its summation of musical genius and ambition before the weight of Wilson's mental instability. Despite this, the film largely succeeds in expressing as much of his inexplicable musical creative process as possible. It's not nearly as stylishly complex or musically satisfying as his music but comes close enough.
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