Young Brian Wilson (Paul Dano) doesn't like the limelight. He'd rather be left alone to write music while his fellow Beach Boys tour the globe, party with groupies and claim the fame. Older Brian Wilson (John Cusack) doesn't know which way is up. He's confused and medicated thanks to a debilitating drug regimen prescribed by the domineering Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). One would be hard-pressed to guess these are the same men.
A biopic split in two, Love & Mercy doesn't try to explain the expansive history in between these separate events unfolding in the 1960s and 1980s, respectively. Instead, director Bill Pohlad weaves the experiences together with the help of a soundtrack littered with popular hits. Thematically, each portion surveys Wilson's ongoing attempts to break free of creative limitations and psychological abuses that are as all encompassing as the voices raging in his head.
In the early goings, The Beach Boys are seen doing promotions on sandy locales, performing for live studio audiences, and parading around in snappy sun wear. Considering how hollow it all feels, this could easily be mistaken as B-roll footage from Gidget. Brian is the obvious outsider living uncomfortably within this bubble of pop culture grandstanding. He attempts to regain control by moving forward with an audacious new album entitled Pet Sounds, much to the chagrin of his overbearing father and more conservative bandmates.
Flash forward a few decades and Wilson, as played by a comatose Cusack, meets a charming car saleswoman named Melinda (Elizabeth Banks). The two take an immediate shine to one another despite the omniscient and menacing presence of Landy and his goons. The narrative arc is less interesting here since there's little mystery to Wilson's creative process, only the repetitive nature of rote melodrama that has a predetermined ending.
The overt presence of mental abuse dominates both sections. Brian's facial expressions and body language seize up whenever his father or Landy come into frame. Love & Mercy respects the power of close contact intimidation, much like Hou Hsiao-Hsien's insanely dense Millennium Mambo. Pohlad spends a lot of time pinning Wilson's body to the side of the frame, giving us the sense that free will is no longer an option for this man.
Wilson's scenes with Landry stand out as particularly scary. There's something about the way Giamatti uses his entire frame to dissuade courage and strength in other people, soaking in their energy for his own gain. The moment Melinda breaks free of this spell is one of the film's finer moments.
Despite its overall strong performances, Love & Mercy doesn't always add up to a convincing whole. Certain scenes stand out as particularly profound, like the long take circling around young Brian as he performs "God Only Knows" for the first time before ending on the disapproving look of his wretched and spiteful father. The devastating conversation they have after such a lovely song hints at the striking lineage between anger and joy that defines Wilson's creative spirit.
Still, by the time the credits roll there's a distinctly artificial vibe to how everything plays out for Wilson. Unlike the 1960s segment, which has a beguiling undercurrent of surrealism and deep conflict, the tepid 1980s portion dominates the latter half of the film since it represents the character's redemption.
Love & Mercy, which opens Friday, June 5, might not be a great biopic (they can't all be Saint Laurent), but it has enough virtues to warrant attention, specifically Dano's entranced performance. In his skittish eyes we see the duality of pop genius and the lengthy tumult that enabled such vision to be so pronounced. It's shocking to consider this is the man who wrote "Good Vibrations." But that's Brian Wilson for you.
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