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A Beach Boy Seeks Love & Mercy

Updated on August 22, 2015

Among the many rockers who could be considered tortured geniuses is the man who was chief creative force of the Beach Boys, Brian Wilson. His descent into trouble and attempts to address his issues are the subject of Love & Mercy. The film begins with a montage covering some 20 years of Wilson's life, where young Brian (Paul Dano) leads his band in concert and on a wave of popularity. The film cuts to him lying in bed all day, as well as a trip to a car dealership of an older Brian (John Cusack). With him at the dealership are a couple of bodyguards and his personal physician, Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). Brian's unusual behavior gets the attention of car seller Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), who patiently waits on him. While they sit in the car and make a deal, Brian gives Melinda a private message and asks for a date. She accepts.

She soon learns that behind the charming but troubled musician is a man determined to control his patient. Landy welcomes a relationship between Brian and Melinda, but he wants to meet with Melinda after every date and get her analysis of the dates. While Brian's medically induced behavior may be problematic, Melinda finds Landy's insistence on control that includes estrangement from his immediate family, whom Brian hasn't seen in two years. As a young man, Brian had some problems connecting to the world, especially after he and his wife Marilyn (Erin Drake) became parents. His relationship with band mate Mike Love (Jake Abel) became strained as the two debated the direction in which Brian wanted to take the band. His hard to please father Murry (Bill Camp) sold the rights to the songs without consulting him. Brian's drug use made his behavior erratic. While Melinda sees a troubled man, she thinks his regimen may not be making him as well as he could be. She cares enough about Brian that she wants to challenge Landy, and wonders if Landy's aide Gloria (Diana Maria Riva) will help to prove that case.

Love & Mercy, which is also the title of a Brian Wilson solo record, is a strong portrait of a man fighting demons and trying to get back to a life that he can control. The older Brian knows something is wrong, but can't find the strength or too many words to address his problems. Yet, he senses reaching out to Melinda might be a good thing. The younger Brian becomes affected by success, and by the desire to evolve as an artist. He hurts his own cause with drug use, his failure to get proper medical attention, and finds bonding with his daughters to be hard. The story moves effectively between the decades. In the earlier era, viewers see young Brian falling apart under all of his problems. In the later era, the older Brian struggles to function, thanks to Landy's treatment. Oren Moverman teams on the screenplay with Michael Alan Lerner, who wrote the Wilson biography Heroes And Villains, which serves as the basis for this movie. They show a young man in descent, as well as an older man who recognizes that control for his life should revert to him. The film is a rare opportunity for Bill Pohlad to direct, and he effectively creates a portrait of a man whose issues aren't completely his doing. Pohlad usually produces movies, most notably Brokeback Mountain and the Oscar-winning Best Picture 12 Years A Slave.

Both Cusack and Dano capture Wilson at various stages of his life well. As the young Wilson, Dano wants more than to be a man who writes songs by a hit formula. In one scene, he even tells Mike the surfers he knows don't consider the Beach Boys synonymous with surf music. Dano even shows the eccentric side of Brian as he experiments with new sounds during the band's time in the studio. Eccentries are followed by real trouble that jeopardizes everything Brian has and has done. As the older Brian, Cusack shows the damage caused by years of meds and treatment not based on his input. Brian still has music, but Landy wants to control that part of Brian as well. Giamatti impresses and disgusts as Dr. Landy, a man who did help his patient get out of bed, but see himself as some sort of puppet master. In one scene, he scolds Brian for not waiting to be served, in spite of his patient's obvious hunger. Landy doesn't want the strings of his treatment to be broken or altered in any way. Banks has one of her best roles as Melinda, the car seller who sees and believes in Brian's goodness, and knows that he needs treatment from someone other than Dr. Landy. The real Brian Wilson appears in concert footage during the closing credits.

Music fans debate the greatness of Wilson and the Beach Boys, but nobody can argue that Brian Wilson had issues that impeded him as both a musician and a person. Wilson may have gained some benefit from Landy's treatment, but remained lost in so many ways for the same reason. Love & Mercy finds a man trying to fight his doctor to have a say in a return to normalcy, and finding the doctor wishes to remain in charge, claiming his regimen is for his patient's own good. Brian Wilson did what he could to disagree, and found someone who wanted to help and bring more of the good to the surface. All he ever wanted were two qualities everyone deserves, no matter of the other troubles that come with him.

On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Love & Mercy 3.5 stars. Gotta keep those lovin' vibrations a-happenin'.


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