“The proof is in the formula.”
Above is a quote which Brian Wilson, the artistic focal point and the eventual band maestro of the legendary Beach Boys, would absolutely hate and detest. Formula is, as the word connotates, ordinary. Expected and unenthusiastic. In Love & Mercy, one of the most challenging and ultimately rewarding musical biopics ever made, we encounter a visionary. A man troubled by the tireless voices in his head, his stir of echoes hallucinations, both suppressing and coping with his demons through the magic of song. I’ll admit that the film initially underwhelmed me, but that’s because there is so much to absorb. So much to take into account through sight and sound. Love & Mercy is the kind of harmonic, moving, rewarding, and overall ambitious film that you’d expect from the visionary behind the album Pet Sounds. It’s disjointed and unwhole, but never entirely incomplete. You can’t make a perfect film with such disparate and unwieldy storylines, but you can make a compelling one, and that’s exactly what this is.
Most audiences will not connect with this film. Like some of Wilson’s deranged and capitulated compositions, everything must be dissected and understood. It’s as layered as a grandmother’s trifle. But it’s never trifling. In fact the film is rapturous and as single-minded as a journey into the mind via Being John Malkovich. Like that film, Love & Mercy not only makes you sympathize with the protagonist; it forces you into his situation. You feel for the man. You understand his deep-seeded childhood trauma and his troubling psychosis. If you feel disheartened or letdown by the film, it’s your own fault. You only scraped the whipped topping off of the surface. Dig your spoon, fork, whatever utensil you have just a little bit deeper, and you’ll move past the sugary and sweet confectioneries. Your gold-picking silverware will hit a rich wealth of savory and valuable emotional bricks.
Love & Mercy is two films in two hours, each respected time period fulfilling one of the aforementioned nouns. As the 60’s Brian, slowly egressing into a tubular anxiety pipeline, the early set segments deal with Wilson’s musical genius and creative process. His Love not only for music, but with sound. And the other half during the hairsprayed 80’s, Wilson is a manipulated shell of a former person, so troubled and downtrodden that he could be a tortured nephew, gripped by his tormenting Uncle in a stranglehold, screaming Mercy just for a sense of relief. It’s remarkable how the title not only reflects one of Wilson’s many masterful compositions, but the story as a whole, and how every piece works in unison. The diverse symmetry is unheard of, unless of course you listen to Brian Wilson himself.
Before you acknowledge the cast, you must appreciate the crew. That especially goes foe Director Bill Pohland. He’s a newbie to the director’s chair and still imparts a rich, oftentimes authoritative voice, uses purposeful framework, and somehow manages to, through a jointly collaborative effort, cohesively edit everything together into one understandable yet still challenging piece of art. Pohland makes Wilson’s journey a shared one. Our own. And the consequences of that creative decision, all positive, shed light on and bring full circle the roundabout and often traffic jammed thought processes of the madness behind the mind behind the man. It’s illusory in its approach and inescapable in its effect. Whether you admire or love The Beach Boys or Wilson does not matter. Love & Mercy is a film that, most like its inspiration, submitting to his own relentless creativity, is one best to helplessly relax and let wash over you. Its power is nearly baptismal.
Now, lay no more space to waste, I must recognize the cast. Love & Mercy is a sophisticated film that works under the pressure of a strict dichotomy. Paul Dano is Wilson in his creative youth. John Cusack is Wilson in his bed-ridden and impressionable adulthood. And both give awards worthy performances. Dano’s role is juicier, and as a product of the years portrayed, more spirited and alive. But Dano is a humbly gifted actor, this generation’s Michael Shannon, and he feels like an artist, like Michelangelo effortlessly painting on his back while his imitators struggle to replicate the formula on their own two feet. Dano gets the showier performance, and while its phenomenal (especially the performance pieces), I can’t see the Academy recognizing his work in the leading category, which it would fall into. Cusack on the other hand will almost certainly get a Best Supporting Actor Nom. He’s gentle, subliminally furious, and altogether captivating. The role, and the man, feel tailor-made to Cusack’s kind of work, and I’d love to see such a talent finally be recognized for such detailed craft.
That’s not all for the cast though. Paul Giamatti is frustratingly brilliant, deceptive and conniving as Eugene Landy, Wilson’s personal ward and obsessive-controlling doctor. The real impresser is Elizabeth Banks (awards worthy and spiritedly nuanced) as Melinda, Brian’s future wife, a Cadillac saleswoman in love with a hopeless man but never relenting to time or place or circumstance. Melinda is a rich character, and while she’s given little fanfare, you quickly realize that without her, both in the film and in real life, the story is little more than a faded swan song. Rarely do biopics of any genre let us into the real world of the protagonist. Love & Mercy takes it one step further by digging a SOLD stake into the meticulously landscaped lot that is the mind of Brian Wilson. In the film’s title song the artist sings, “I was sittin’ in a crummy movie with my hands on my chin.” Never is that the case. This is thoughtful, purposeful, meaningful cinema in a summer of no-named bastards and pimped out box-office whores. Love & Mercy is, I reckon, what you and I both need tonight.
“At first it was nothing, and then it was everything.”
Rating: 4 out of 5