Love & Mercy, the new biopic about the creative drives and demons behind the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, takes a usual approach to a highly unusual pop artist. It not only tries to put us in the mind of Wilson himself — sometimes effectively, sometimes not so — it also uses more than one actor to play its central character. In a timeline that shifts between the 1960s and the 1980s, Paul Dano (heartbreakingly sensitive, isolated, embattled, and doing his own singing) plays the young, sad-eyed Wilson back when the Beach Boys’ tight, upbeat harmonies – equal parts barbershop quartet, The Modernaires, and the Four Freshman – epitomized sun, surf, fast cars, and beach bunnies. He feels like a fraud. “But we’re not surfers,” Wilson makes it plain, “and real surfers don’t listen to us.”
Behind that cheery, quintessentially California sound was a troubled guy who was repeatedly harangued by his father, frequently at odds with his band mates who rarely understood where his creative muse was driving them, and buffeted by the sometimes destructive voices in his head clamoring for attention. When the absorbing, melancholy movie, directed by Bill Pohlad from a screenplay by Oren Moverman and Michal A. Lerner, settles down and focuses on Wilson and the Beach Boys in recording sessions for the densely orchestrated masterwork Pet Sounds, the moviemakers’ careful attention to period detail, the authenticity of the performances, and the music itself are enough to lift you right out of your seat. The “Good Vibrations” and “God Only Knows” sequences alone are stunners and they’re matched by the fantastic sound design which immerses us in the other-worldly sounds in Wilson’s mind.
John Cusack (too much Cusack, too little Wilson) takes over for Dano in the scenes in which the older Wilson was brought low by depression, emotional breakdowns, inactive to the point of being almost vegetative, and controlled by a dictatorial and exploitative 24-a-day therapist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), who diagnosed him as a paranoid schizophrenic. Elizabeth Banks plays Melinda Ledbetter, a Cadillac dealer with whom Wilson falls in love and who helps spearhead a bitter legal battle to emancipate the musician from Landy’s clutches. But despite the efforts of Giamatti and, especially, Banks, both Landy’s and Ledbetter’s depictions are too neatly split into devil and angel; the reality, according to numerous books and magazine pieces, was more human and complex. Cusack is good but the scenes set in the later years of Wilson’s life are so much less powerful and deeply felt than the ‘60s stuff. But Love & Mercy is a strong, unconventionally entertaining movie about the mysteries of the psyche the creative process and it’s graced by a knowing, charismatic, heartbreaking performance from a never better Dano. ***