Brian Wilson makes happy music, but in the biopic Love & Mercy, he doesn’t seem like a very happy man. He’s the victim of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his controlling father during the 1960s. He suffers a mental breakdown, spurred on by wanton drug use. Even as he’s recovering, he’s manipulated and controlled by his 24-hour therapist, Eugene Landry, who simply replaces Wilson’s father as the abusive, dominating male figure in his life. He might make happy-sounding music, but it’s all stemming from the mind of a tortured musical genius.
The film’s narrative jumps back and forth between the 1960s Wilson (Paul Dano, in his best performance to date) and 1980s Wilson (John Cusack) with surprising ease and continuity. While we miss over a decade of Wilson’s life through this approach, it allows for an intimate, detailed look at particular seasons without succumbing to little more than a highlight reel of one person’s high and low points. The script is evenly paced and well-crafted, and the design for each era–right down to the haircuts and cars–is perfectly executed without being a distraction. Dano’s performance stands out for its raw authenticity and perfect use of Dano’s spacey stare and sensitive spirit. Still, the acting which impressed me most was Elizabeth Banks as Melinda Ledbetter, a beautiful woman Wilson meets while purchasing a car, and subsequently falls in love. The 1980s portions are told primarily from her perspective, and the film is stronger for it. As Melinda grows in her fondness for Wilson–a broken and harassed man, constantly under watch by Eugene Landry and his few cronies–she has to make some difficult decisions about love and commitment. It would be so much easier for her to simply walk away from the budding romance and not get involved in such a complicated and volatile situation. But real love, the sort of love that goes beyond mushy feelings and is expressed through committed, sacrificial action–that’s the kind of love Melinda has for Brian. It’s refreshing to see a film explore this sort of romantic love, as Brian and Melinda truly have to fight through some serious obstacles in order to be together. Banks has never been better, giving a subtle and affecting performance, and I hope she’s given more of these dramatic roles in the near future. In contrast, Paul Giamatti as Landry has turned up the villainy to a full 10, giving an over-the-top, almost comically awkward performance as the manipulative therapist. I could never quite take him seriously, and in a film filled with nuance and subtlety, he stands out in a negative way. Cusack is good here, but not great, and I was never quite convinced he and Dano were the same person only a few decades apart. Maybe it’s the different hair color and facial structure. Still, their differences only accentuate Wilson’s spiraling journey over two decades; he’s a whole different person by the time Melinda meets him.
Overall, Love & Mercy is a solid, interesting biopic of a fascinating character in American music history. There are some high points, some lows points, but it mostly stays in a happy middle. It’s both simple and interesting, accessible while also layered with meaning, effervescent while also being sorta sad. In that way, it’s sort of like a really good Beach Boys album.
IMDB Listing: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0903657/