MOVIE REVIEW: Love and Mercy
"LOVE AND MERCY"-- 4 STARS
Just under a year ago, this writer and website stepped forward to complement "Get On Up," the excellent James Brown story from "The Help" director Tate Taylor, on breaking away from the norms and cliches that dog and stereotype boring biographical films. Employing a then-little-known lead (Chadwick Boseman) commanding the screen and delivering a shaken-but-not-stirred narrative framework that veered away from chronological order and the typical use of flashbacks, "Get On Up" earned strong respect and stood out from the glut of seemingly identical musical biopics that have inundated cinemas within the last fifteen years.
In that review, the three basic elements that go into the formula of a biographical film were laid out, those being an interesting main subject, brutal honesty to tell the real story, and a simple three-act structure. Those are the boxes a biopic needs to check. Where the cliches invade and sour the results are when one or more of those basic ingredients are ruined by sugarcoating, over-dramatization, repetitive conflicts, excessive flashbacks, forced happy endings, or good old-fashioned bad acting. Those are difficult pitfalls to avoid, but the really good biographical films make it look easy.
Add "Love and Mercy" to the list of excellent biopics immediately. Driven by a unique double narrative of two actors, John Cusack and Paul Dano, covering Beach Boys frontman Brain Wilson at two crucial stages of his life, "Love and Mercy" diverts from the birth-to-death formula and gives us something meaty, fascinating, difficult, and worthwhile. The dichotomy of the pleasant music set against a troubling underbelly and backstory elevates this film to another level of quality among its peers.
As with many great recording artists of the past and present, not everyone is as perfect as their packaged image from their album covers and interviews would have us believe. When most of us picture The Beach Boys, we think sunshine, girls, cars, and music that makes us feel warm. The opening credits of "Love and Mercy" runs with that and gives us gorgeous recreations and an initial sample of the group working behind-the-scenes to create that fun-loving image. Not everything is sunny and we catch on quickly to that fact.
Not too long before this story begins in late 1965, group leader Brian Wilson (Dano in these younger years) has fired his own father Murry (Bill Camp) as their manager, yet still pines for his approval. Brian became tired of the same old surfer music and wanted to test different creative waters than taking Murry's advice of sticking to what sells. After a panic attack spooks him, Brian elects to skip an international tour with the group in order to stay home and write new music with new techniques. Producing and arranging different instrumentation and untested experimental blends and ideas, Brian wants to stay ahead of the likes of The Beatles and Phil Spector. He obsesses over creating what would be Pet Sounds, the Beach Boys' 11th and seminal classic album that would later elevate them as true artists and not just pop hitmakers.
That narrative, its effect, and its fallout is mirrored by John Cusack playing the older Brian at middle-age in the 1980's. This Brian Wilson is a withdrawn and depressed mess long removed from the bright 1960's. He's become a lonely and frightened slave to the over-medication and legal control of Dr. Eugene Landy (Oscar nominee Paul Giamatti), a crooked self-help therapist who watches and guards his every move. A portion of his vigor and personality returns when he becomes smitten with and catches the eye of the lovely car salesman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks).
Each narrative arc teems with intriguing and poignant conflict that seeks to narrow the gap between the two pasts. In the 1960's portion, Brian's obsessive and anxious fears and tendencies spill past his songwriting to alienate his group members and become worse through pervasive drug use as he digresses. Meanwhile, Melinda re-opens Brian's heart in the later years but cannot break the influential hold Landy has over him to fully improve his life. "Love and Mercy" weaves those arcs together quite smoothly to create a satisfying and endlessly interesting drama.
The peak quality of "Love and Mercy" is its dedicated acting. Giamatti is the preeminent go-to slimeball in the business, so his casting and success is easy. He pours snake oil matched with unhinged shouting with the best of the best. He's an ideal villain in this kind of story, but the stronger work is, naturally, the two Brian Wilson portrayals. Paul Dano has always had the ability to play meek-versus-troubled, as seen in "There Will Be Blood," "Little Miss Sunshine," and "Ruby Sparks." We know Brian (and Paul himself) can crack at any moment and when he does, it's bold and meaningful. This film also gives us arguably the best John Cusack performance since 2007's underseen "Grace is Gone." He turns off his signature rapid-fire, manic persona and executes a finely-tuned performance as the older Brian. Cusack's understated dialogue, tempo, and physical movements work together to characterize a shining brilliance being held down by internal and external demons. It's a toss-up to say who is better.
The two dual leads are a pleasure to watch, but the biggest breath of fresh air that brightens this picture is Elizabeth Banks. Her Melinda is the steady presence and stabilizing influence that would go on to change Brian's life. Cast for her perfect California looks, Banks exudes much more than a pretty face. Watch her, commonly without words, listen, absorb, and react to the sad husk of a man that stands and smiles before her. She shoulders and takes on Brian's difficulties and rarely flinches. As the outsider and fan stepping into this world, Banks's character matches our lens as the audience. We want to see Brian through this just like Melinda does. She's the lantern-bearer hoping to shed light on the darkness. It is a sensational and mature supporting performance from the comedienne Banks that is more Oscar-worthy than her male counterparts.
Come to "Love and Mercy" for the music but stay for the involving double-barreled saga of creative energy, new-found redemption, and growing companionship. This film relishes the understated vibe it seeks. It's not earth-shatteringly profound as a story or a film. It's not going to jump off the screen or crush your emotions. However, this film will impress you and gain your respect. That's better than 90% of the tired biographical films that hit cinemas every year. Enjoy a winner right here.
LESSON #1: KIDS, DON'T DO DRUGS-- It's not that drugs, past or present, were the only culprit in destroying Brian Wilson, but they sure didn't help. This goes for both the recreational variety taken by Brian in the 60's and the misdiagnosed prescription junk that saddled him in the 80's. Sure, they're either fun on one end or intended for healthy means on the other, but both forms can be habit-forming, expensive, and soul-sucking as well. Yes, some of the greatest performing artists were drug abusers that felt like their creativity was opened by their habits, but that isn't for everyone. Stay clean, kids. Don't take that trip and don't fall for that crutch. It's a short-term pleasure.
LESSON #2: BE CAREFUL WHO YOU GET ADVICE FROM OR SHARE CONTROL WITH-- The abusive childhood and teen years for Brian that are hinted at in "Love and Mercy" desensitized him from truly knowing who around him had his best interests at heart. Family failed him first and it led to him drinking the Kool-Aid of someone like Dr. Landy, who nearly squeezed him dry, personally or financially. Learn to know who you can trust and who you can't. Your inner circle of friends or family can't be filled with the wrong kind of people. Let the right people in.
LESSON #3: ONE PERSON'S CREATIVE EXPERIENCE IS ANOTHER PERSON'S MISSED MESSAGE-- Let's move past the cautionary tales from the first two lessons and get to something that speaks to the talent of Brian Wilson. Without his genius, the Beach Boys aren't forever-remembered icons and we're not making movies about them. For the Pet Sounds album at the center of this story, Brian releases his inner machinations and dreams to create something that had never been tried before. He passed on the group's M.O. to sing the same bubbly stuff and got soulful and even spiritual with his new sound. Not everyone understood the genius that was at work. As with any genre of music or medium of art, one person's cup of tea is another person's bitter poison. Tastes are different and change over history. The hard part is that Brian Wilson is a pleaser who wants approval. That doesn't always come his way, despite his best efforts, past and present.