Cast: Paul Dano, John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti
Director: Bill Polahd
Running Time: 2 hours
by Jericho Cerrona
Biopics have always been a dicey filmic proposition. There's the obligatory "greatest hits" narrative arc, the childhood flashbacks, the moments of brilliant inspiration, the drug-fueled years, and if the film is male-centered (which it probably is) a long-suffering, noble woman attempting to save the troubled genius. Love & Mercy, director Bill Polahd's take on the life and times of Beach Boy Brian Wilson, contains its fair share of such hoary biopic cliches, but it also attempts something much more fractured in order to camouflage such tropes. It's no mistake that writer Oren Moverman (who used a similar non-traditional approach with Todd Haynes' impressionistic Dylan biopic I'm Not There), was brought in to touch up Michael Alan Lerner's screenplay. In a way, Love & Mercy resembles Haynes' tonally scattershot film in that it also attempts to get at the essence of its subject rather than adhere to strict realism.
In Polahd's rendering, Wilson (portrayed here during two decades by Paul Dano and John Cusack, respectively), was a tortured soul given to stretches of lucid songwriting genius, drug abuse, and delusions of grandeur before being saved from the clutches of a sadistic psychiatrist (a scenery-chewing Paul Giamatti) by a resourceful Cadillac saleswoman (Elizabeth Banks, rocking the 80s fashion). While these points may be factual, they make for a rather limited perspective of a very complicated man; which, incidentally, is the same problem plaguing most biopics. On the plus side, oscillating between 60s era Wilson and late 80's-mid 90s Wilson does allow Polahd and Moverman the opportunity to create a tactile narrative arc without relying on the aforementioned "greatest hits" checklist. More importantly, the see-saw approach also works in the way Wilson's brain works; which is to say, non-linear and bordering on the schizophrenic.
The main issue with Love & Mercy is that it simplifies its subject by surrounding him with one-note caricatures, refusing the audience the ability to connect the thematic dots while hitting predictable metaphors square on the head. While Banks is fine as Melinda Ledbetter, the woman who falls for Wilson and aids him in getting out from under the spell of domineering psychiatrist Eugene Landy, her character is more or less on hand as an infantilized nurturing savior. Her scenes opposite Cusack (who plays Wilson as a kind of drugged out zen monk) have a certain natural charm, but they often feel disjointed and rushed in order to propel the plot. Meanwhile, Giammatti is having a blast as the villainous Landy, but the only thing less convincing than his irate screaming matches and mean-spirited insults is that marvelously daft wig. Dano fares much better as the younger wide-eyed version of Wilson, not only nailing the strange body posture and facial tics, but also the ability to channel Wilson's uncanny joy in creating music. The film's best sequences, therefore, are the ones involving Wilson in the studio concocting bits and pieces of what will become "Pet Sounds" and "Smile." Cinematographer Robert Yeoman approximates the nostalgic vibe with grainy, documentary-style footage, and the moments where Dano stands inside the control room beaming with absolute joy as the visions inside his head become sonic realities, are highlights. A more daring, and possibly unmarketable film, would have condensed the timeline into a small portion of Wilson's 60s peak as he recorded his groundbreaking pop experiments inside the studio. Seeing him working with a throng of talented musicians, as well as his interactions with the other Beach Boys, Mike Love, and his father (who often came to visit the recording sessions for some verbal abuse) would have got at the essence of the man more shrewdly than extending his story into two disproportionate sections.
Love & Mercy fails to truly give us an inkling of Brian Wilson's contradictions, genius, and enigmatic nature beyond the obvious. The fact that he was a recluse given to bizarre behavior and alienating those around him, as well as his later years as a catatonic zombie held in captivity by an insane doctor upping his drug dosage to ridiculous degrees, is all factually-based, but it also makes for less than compelling drama. Mostly, the film lacks a steady anchor; switching back and forth in time giving us insights, impressions, and expository dialogue, but not much that's very illuminating. However, there is an impressive score by Atticus Ross here; one that uses a sonic collage approach by using snippets of Wilson's audio recordings and then looping, warping, and configuring them. It's a nifty way to extrapolate the way Wilson came at things, although Polahd does overuse the score to heighten and literalize the voices in his head. This last point is crucial to understanding the missed opportunities at play; for here is a picture that obviously idolizes Wilson and at least gets the music part right, but which ultimately bows to conventional biopic formula in the home stretch. During one particularly ill-advised "authorized biography" type scene, Wilson sits at a piano while talking to Mike Love (Jake Abel) while jamming out a rudimentary piano motif. Brian cocks his head, smiles, and remarks that dogs often pick up human beings' sensory vibrations. Mike Love grins approvingly, despite obviously thinking Brian is a nutcase, and says "You may have something there. Play that again." Cut to the blaring sounds of "Good Vibrations" and the Boys in the studio, making the case that musical inspiration comes in easily digested sound bites and fawning praise by those already convinced of Brian Wilson's brilliance.