Mark Reviews Movies

Love & Mercy

LOVE & MERCY

3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Bill Pohlad

Cast: John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti, Jake Abel, Bill Camp, Kenny Wormald, Max Schneider, Graham Rogers, Brett Davern, Erin Darke, Dee Wallace

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, drug content and language)

Running Time: 2:00

Release Date: 6/5/15


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Review by Mark Dujsik | June 4, 2015

It's fitting the primary antagonist of Love & Mercy is a predatory quack of a psychiatrist. The biographical film doesn't care too much to cheaply psychoanalyze its subject Brian Wilson, one of the founding members of the Beach Boys and the band's driving creative force. There's plenty of opportunity, mind you, since, beyond the music, we primarily know of Wilson through the stories of his mental-health issues. You might recall the one about how he spent two years in bed. "That's not true," the Wilson of the film says; "It was more like three."

He also points out that he didn't spend the whole time in bed, of course. He went downstairs to get food (He gained a substantial amount of weight in those years), used the bathroom, and talked to this person or another on occasion. There's something perversely romantic about the myth behind Wilson's problems—that a man of such musical genius would be, in the vernacular, "mad" and that the "madness" is what drove his creativity.

It's not a new notion. The terrible shrink in the film makes a fortune on that idea while helping to perpetuate it through more-than-questionable medical practices—overmedicating the man on a phony diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. Wilson's father, the band's manager, took advantage of his son's eagerness to please and, in turn, stifled Wilson's desire to create what he wanted to create. Late in the film, director Bill Pohlad uses the image of Wilson in bed as a simple but exquisite visual metaphor. As the years pass and bleed together, others watch over him but do nothing. Eventually, he's alone in his protective prison.

Yes, something wasn't quite "normal" about Wilson. The film acknowledges that, but it also sets out to show us the circumstances of Wilson's life that certainly didn't help matters. Many of those circumstances happen to be people taking advantage of Wilson's mental state in one way or another without caring much (or at all) about what it might be doing to him.

The film is divided into two periods of Wilson's life. In the 1980s, an older Brian (John Cusack) is caught in the web of Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). He also meets Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), a kind woman who works at a car dealership. They seem to be flirting, although, if that's the case, some of the subjects—such as the drowning death of his brother—are certainly odd breaking-the-ice techniques. When he writes something on her business card, we assume it's his phone number. Instead, it's a list of words that give us a rather disturbing look into his mindset.

As a younger man, Brian (Paul Dano) is writing and recording the music for the album Pet Sounds. He brings dogs into the studio to record their barking. He makes musicians spend hours recording a measure or two, but they don't care. They all know they're making something great. The film may primarily serve as a study of Brian, but in these moments of artistic inspiration and creation, it also shows a great deal of respect and admiration for the creative process. That's vital to seeing the other side of Brian—the side that makes his story a tragic one.

Most of the band (his two brothers, a cousin, and a friend) loves the material, but there's pushback from his father Murry (Bill Camp), who's upset over being fired, and band member/cousin Mike Love (Jake Abel), who finds the whole enterprise depressing. There's no love song, he argues. "God Only Knows" is one, Brian says. Mike retorts, "It's a suicide note!"

The screenplay by Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner jumps between these two periods, following the older Brian in his courtship with Melinda under the watchful eye of the bad doctor and the younger Brian as professional and mental strains become too much for him to bear. The film understands that there's no breaking point for Brian that turned him from a successful musician to a bedridden mess. It's a culmination of events and realizations.

There's a haunting scene in which the younger Brian tries to escape an argument in the studio by putting on noise-canceling headphones, but that means he's forced to listen to the cacophony of noise—some of it pleasant music and other parts of it just a formless din—in his head. The choice itself is less important than the terrible necessity to make that choice.

This is what's important about the film's analysis of the character. It's present but not cheap—in other words, no dime-store diagnoses (Those are for the quack to provide). Pohlad leaves it to short vignettes, such as the headphone scene, to show us what is happening to this man. Brian isn't drawn into his mind because it's appealing. He retreats there because the alternative—of living among people who, to him, seem uncaring or angry—is slightly more terrifying. In the moment of decision, Dano's face doesn't show any sign of comfort. It's a look of resignation, if not defeat. Dano is quite good here, too, because everything about his performance is internalized. We can see a man who is as uncomfortable in his own mind as he is in the world.

What's fascinating is how the screenplay places the older Brian in something of a supporting role to Melinda. If the scenes of the film's past are a call for compassion toward Brian, Melinda is essentially the answer.

She accepts Brian as he is and takes it a step further to challenge Landy's hold on him. Cusack is solid, channeling the same internal torment as Dano, and Giamatti is frighteningly effective as a man whose motives seem to go beyond money. He seems to take vicious pleasure in controlling his ward. Banks, though, is the standout performance in this section of the film, letting us see that Melinda cares enough for Brian to let him go if that's what he really needs. She's selfless but strong (The line following her final confrontation with Landy is a doozy of matter-of-factness).

The film overlooks some seemingly important parts of Wilson's life (For example, he says his first wife saved his life, but she barely figures into the story), but we can fill in the blank spaces. Love & Mercy gets right to the heart of Wilson's story—the sad but uplifting tale of a man who needed some help to fight to get out of bed.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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