The Movie Waffler New Release Review - <i>LOVE & MERCY</i> | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - LOVE & MERCY

Biopic of musician Brian Wilson.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Bill Pohlad

Starring: John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti, Dee Wallace

"All too often, biopics of troubled artists focus more on the troubles than the art, but Love & Mercy strikes a fine balance, and both elements dovetail effectively. Cusack's performance is one of the great acting comebacks of recent decades."

The most successful biopics are usually those which focus in on a specific period in their subject's life. For this biopic of musician Brian Wilson, he of Beach Boys fame, it's not one, but two chapters of his life that are examined, one highlighting his artistic accomplishments, the other his later psychological troubles. There's enough material for two separate movies, making Love & Mercy one of the few interesting takes on the life of a musician.
We first meet Wilson in the '80s as a forty-something (played by John Cusack) who has fallen out of the public gaze, thanks in no small part to his suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, a condition brought on by his heavy drug use and exacerbated by the 'treatment' of Eugene Landy (Paul Gimatti), a suspect doctor who wields an unhealthy control over Wilson through over-medication. While shopping for a car, Wilson has an unconventional meet cute with salesperson Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), who, having grown up with his music, takes an instant liking to the troubled Wilson. They begin dating, but Landy and his goons are ever-present. Realising just how damaging Landy's influence is, Ledbetter attempts to extract Wilson from his grasp.
Intercut with this plotline we witness a twentysomething Wilson (Paul Dano) at the height of his fame in the '60s. Having grown bored with songs about surfing and chasing girls, and inspired by The Beatle's seminal album Rubber Soul, Wilson embarks on creating a collection of experimental tracks that will come to form the album Pet Sounds.
All too often, biopics of troubled artists focus more on the troubles than the art, but Love & Mercy strikes a fine balance, and both elements dovetail effectively. We sympathise with Cusack's broken down Wilson all the more because we see the talent of his younger Dano self demonstrated explicitly. A large chunk of the movie explores the creation of Pet Sounds, and the movie's most memorable moments feature Wilson at work, either orchestrating his team of initially dubious session musicians or simply formulating tunes at a piano by himself. Fans of Wilson's work will be thrilled by subtle little moments, like Dano instinctively beating out the opening of 'I'm Waiting for the Day' on a drum as it's carried past him, or the delight on the face of legendary bassist Carol Kaye when she realises just how great a seemingly suspect instruction from Wilson actually sounds when played.
The central quartet of Cusack, Dano, a radiant Banks and a slimier than ever Giamatti elevate this from a musical fanboy treat to a work of dramatic heft that should be enjoyed by all. There's an interesting parallel between Cusack and his character in that Cusack's prime is two decades in the past now, and his recent performances have felt like a medicated version of the charismatic star of The Sure Thing and Grosse Pointe Blank. Cusack has become increasingly difficult to warm to over the decades, his rebellious youthful streak transforming into smugness, but I'm back in his camp after witnessing his tender, loveable performance here.
Much has been made of the fact that, while Dano bears a resemblance to a young Wilson, Cusack looks nothing like Dano, but this actually adds an extra layer to the film; we really are dealing with two different men here. While Dano is great as the '60s Wilson, it's to the film's credit that the easy route of aging him with make-up wasn't taken, a decision that would have robbed us of Cusack's performance, one of the great acting comebacks of recent decades.