REVIEW: Love & Mercy

7 06 2015

Love and MercyStruggle is an inevitable, unavoidable part of creating art and living life.  But in Bill Pohlad’s “Love & Mercy,” an unconventional two-panel biopic of Beach Boys lead singer Brian Wilson, struggle is practically the whole story.  Rather than running through his entire life, writers Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner take a pair of cross-sections featuring Wilson’s breakthroughs and breakdowns.

The 1960s Wilson, as played by Paul Dano, struggles to break his band out of their disingenuous surfer boy marketing gimmick.  To do so, he sets out to create a record that will redefine the capabilities of rock and make The Beatles quiver.  Observing Wilson hard at work fine-tuning the iconic tracks of the Pet Sounds album, which includes such staples as “God Only Knows” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” provides an undeniably joyous sonic rush.  (It was almost enough to make me forget I was watching Paul Dano.)

Fast-forward to the 1980s, and a middle-aged and overmedicated Wilson is now played by John Cusack.   The lights are on, but the person at home is hard to pin down.  “Love & Mercy” might be the first time since “Being John Malkovich” that Cusack does not play some variation of himself, and it proves devastating to watch a helpless soul squirm under the oppressive thumb of exploitative psychologist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti, angry as ever).  Thanks to some tender love and assistance from the kindly soul of Cadillac saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter, played by an absolutely ethereal Elizabeth Banks, Wilson finally manages to get some relief.

Love & Mercy

Cusack and Dano’s segments are intercut rather than treated as separate, compartmentalized components of the narrative.  When juxtaposed in such a way, it’s only natural to look for connections between the two.  While the yin and yang of “Love & Mercy” never quite harmonize in full, there are a few interesting parallels.  Wilson’s constant need for validation from – and subsequent disappointment by – father figures runs throughout the film, as does the pressure and the vulnerability to which artists are exposed following fame and success.

Even without an iron-clad linkage between its two halves, there is still far more to love in “Love & Mercy” than there are things to beg for mercy from.  Great performances by a talented cast, innovative aural collages by Atticus Ross that splice together Beach Boys music with a psychologically affecting score, and genuine emotion from a heartfelt script turn Brian Wilson’s life into unique, compelling cinema.  B+3stars

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