‘Love and Mercy’ sets the record straight

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Love and Mercy (2015)

Directed by Bill Pohlad

God only knows what “Love and Mercy” would be without Paul Dano. The inventive Brian Wilson biopic drops in on the Beach Boys frontman at two important times in his life—right before releasing the Beach Boys’ seminal album “Pet Sounds” in the 1960s, and in the 1980s (played here by John Cusack), when Wilson was grappling with mental illness. But the story seems to pump the brakes during Cusack’s scenes. The drama may be juicier—or at least more accessible—but the magic isn’t there.

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As someone who wasn’t alive for either of the decades shown in “Love and Mercy,” I’ll admit I didn’t know anything about Brian Wilson’s troubles. I didn’t know about his dad, who remained emotionally abusive even throughout his sons’ Beach Boys success. I didn’t know about his mental illness, or about his history of alcohol and drug abuse. Frankly, I grew up admiring the Beach Boys for their seemingly innocent spirit and unblemished reputation. Little did I know.

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Paul Dano is one of Hollywood’s best young method actors. His inspired turn as Brian Wilson—what Dano himself called the role of a lifetime—could garner award attention. Attention that Dano hasn’t seen, despite award-worthy roles in three Best Picture nominees and a handful of others. Wilson’s artistic genius wasn’t understood in the early 1960s. His brothers thought his idea for “Pet Sounds” was an unnecessary turn away from the surfer song formula the band found success with. But Wilson had stories to tell. Similarly, Dano digs deep to find his own troubled muse to emulate. And John Cusack has to find his own demons to portray Wilson in the 1980s, after he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. It started when Wilson’s psychologist, Dr. Eugene Landy (portrayed by Paul Giamatti, overacting as usual), controversially put him under 24-hour observation. There are rumors that Landy forced Wilson to record his 1988 debut solo record and even that he ghostwrote portions of Wilson’s 1991 autobiography. Landy also overmedicated Wilson, telling him that he was schizophrenic when it was later discovered that his condition was not so severe. John Cusack certainly does capture Wilson’s particularly overmedicated state in his mannerisms and speech. Interviews from around that time are awkward, to say the least. But that’s about as far as Cusack’s success goes. Everything seems very base-level. Maybe it’s an unfair comparison, but Cusack’s scenes lack the good vibrations we pick up from Dano. Playing Melinda Ledbetter, Wilson’s future second wife and the woman who convinced him to leave Dr. Landy’s care, is Elizabeth Banks, fresh off directing “Pitch Perfect 2.” She strikes a rare balance in her performance, easily the best of her career.

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The parallel plotlines can be at times muddled, and the editing of the two together can seem unimaginative, but the idea is smart. Wilson’s life is a book of many chapters, too long to capture in two hours. But “Love and Mercy” tells as much as it can, and it seems to have picked two distinct and characteristic moments in Wilson’s life to share. “Love and Mercy” shows a peek into the darker side of the life of a musical genius. It’s an acid trip of a movie that sets itself apart from a pack of biopics that normally look and feel about the same. Wouldn’t it be nice if other biopics took its cue?

7/10

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