Paul Dano and John Cusack Hit the Right Notes as Brian Wilson in Love & Mercy.

Love & Mercy.
Director: Bill Pohlad.
Writers: Oren Moverman, Michael Alan Lerner.
Cast: Paul Dano, John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti.
Playing At: Wide.

In the history of popular music, there have existed plenty of great bands and many a marvelous musician. Still, only a handful of those talents can truly be considered to be of genius level.

Without a doubt, though, Brian Wilson, the creative force behind the Beach Boys, is one of those few.

But acknowledging that brilliance is more easily said than done. Put simply, there's just no way to completely capture on film all of the facets of this troubled but brilliant man's story. The guy changed the face of music forever; trying to explain that in the straightforward fashion of most musical biopics would be a disservice to his accomplishments.

So thank goodness, then, for director Bill Pohlad's vision for Wilson's story, which boasts some standard elements, but ultimately scores because it's not scared come off as bizarre and distant as its protagonist so often has throughout his life. In turn, Love & Mercy cuts back and forth between Wilson's unorthodox recording sessions for Pet Sounds in the '60s and his truly life-saving romance with his second wife, Melinda, in the '80s.

While not quite as ambitious as writer Oren Moverman’s I'm Not There, which saw six different actors over varying gender and race playing Bob Dylan, Love & Mercy too takes an unusual approach, which helps when it sometimes gets bogged down in reciting facts (“Pet Sounds isn't a hit,” “My dad beat me a lot” and so on).

As the young Wilson, Paul Dano, who so often has the misfortune of playing opposite titans such as Daniel Day-Lewis and Michael Fassbender, finally gets a chance to outshine his co-stars in this role. His interpretation of Wilson is all nervous, unbridled energy. He can't turn off the music or the voices in his head.

As the elder Wilson, John Cusack is no slouch, either. He relies more on facial expressions to get his sorrow across — and, in the process, shares his best performance in nearly a decade.

Actually, the whole cast is strong. Elizabeth Banks is frequently stuck in underwritten girlfriend parts, but excels here as Melinda because her character is actually given something to do. Paul Giamatti, meanwhile, is solid as usual, too, as Dr. Eugene Landy, the doctor who kept Wilson heavily medicated throughout much of the ’80s while stealing untold millions from him.

Given the nonlinear script, Love & Mercy sometimes does feel as if it's two separate movies: In one of them, we watch as Dano goes inside Wilson's damaged mind; in the other, Cusack forcibly keeps us almost strictly on the surface. It's all quite good, if not truly great.

Still, Pohlad skillfully manages to keep it all meshed, presenting a terrifying but humane portrait of mental illness and a fascinating glimpse into the creative process of one of history's greatest musicians.

Grade: B+.

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