by Adam Riske
Love & Mercy is a very good movie. I was not expecting to get as caught up in it as I did, being just a casual fan of The Beach Boys and less of a fan than that of actor Paul Dano. And yet thanks to exceptional acting, solid direction from Bill Pohlad (producer of 12 Years a Slave, Brokeback Mountain, Into the Wild and The Tree of Life) and a strong script from Oren Moverman (the excellent The Messenger, I’m Not There, Rampart) and Michael A. Lerner, Love & Mercy really moved me. I greatly admire the movie’s approach in simply being an interesting story well-told.
The story is not told in sequence, but rather unconventionally in a parallel structure covering the 1960s with a young Brian Wilson played by Paul Dano and in the 1980s with John Cusack taking over the role of The Beach Boys' front man. The approach works to the movie’s benefit (unlike other recent biopics that do the same like Get On Up, which seemed told out of sequence for no real reason) as especially the Cusack sequences (where Wilson is a shell of his former self due to illness and mistreatment) might be too despairing to be told all in one chunk. Better to see some of Wilson’s high points mixed in with the lows.
Director Bill Pohlad does a good job of getting out of the way of his actors, knowing that this is a movie that will sink or swim on its performances. Everyone here is pretty excellent, which came as a surprise to me. I am coming around on Paul Dano. I used to think he was a screechy over-actor and scene hog that looked like a Whole Foods had a baby but ever since he got the shit kicked out of him in Prisoners (aka The Passion of the Dano) I don’t feel like picking on him anymore. He’s really good here and makes you forget the actor and just think of him as Brian Wilson. John Cusack gives a sensitive and vulnerable performance as well. It’s some of his best work, especially of late. Paul Giamatti really gets under your skin (in a good way) as the reprehensible Dr. Landy and Jake Abel has some stellar scenes as Mike Love, a member of The Beach Boys and Brian Wilson’s most vocal critic inside the band, always wanting them to be more commercial and less out on the edge. But the real MVP for me in this movie is Elizabeth Banks. She’s sensational and it’s the best work she’s done thus far on screen. She has the difficult task of playing a normal woman caught up in the drama of Brian Wilson’s life and she makes her character kind, strong and warm. It’s great work.
Second is not really the movie’s fault, but just the sheer fact that you can’t do much with a rock biopic to make it feel fresh and original. It’s a limited genre. Rock biopics are rarely transcendent for me because they only follow one of two arcs: 1) the musician’s rise to fame and fall from grace or 2) the musician’s rise to fame, fall or struggle and comeback, be it in music or in life. Usually a romance is in there somewhere or an addiction or ailment, which is portrayed as partly responsible for the artist’s genius. Is it a coincidence that the vast majority of rock biopics follow one of these two threads? Or is it lesser filmmaking? I’m not sure. In any event, Love & Mercy feels like a traditional biopic, albeit one that is terrifically made.
Note: The last scene is beautiful and kind of perfect; however,l the dramatic moment is somewhat undercut by those all too familiar biopic end cards telling you what happened to everyone. I hate it when movies do that. Do the filmmakers think we really wouldn’t just look up what happened to everyone after we got home?