ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

Biography Film Review 2015: "Love & Mercy" (Written by Oren Moverman, Directed by Bill Pohlad, John Cusack/Paul Dano)

Updated on July 9, 2015
4 stars for "Love & Mercy" Film

"Love & Mercy" is a film, and a very unconventional biopic, that comes in a long line of a recent crop of movies to attempt to shed light on a larger than life figure. In the case of Brian Wilson - lead singer, propulsive band leader, and tormented genius musical architect, his story is both ripe for dramatic documentation yet also tricky to justifiably nail without enraging Beach Boys devotees or putting off new listeners. This movie succeeds beyond a shadow of a doubt and should prove to go down, years from now, as the definitive movie on the Beach Boys and the absorbing and complex mind of Wilson. I will preface: this is not a traditional biopic in the style of "Ray", "Walk The Line", Oliver Stone's "The Doors" or "The Buddy Holly Story". It is less about the creation of the music and shines significantly more on the rattled psyche of Brian Wilson, played with exuberant gusto by a truly on-form Paul Dano doing career best work as the younger version and John Cusack as the older, mid-1980s pop icon who has completely lost his way with hardly anything to cling to while living with dreams deferred and twenty years of regrets.

The narrative cross-cutting of this film is something truly imaginative and the jumping around in time never comes across as sloppy or jumbled. One minute we'll find Dano's Wilson jamming out, trying with OCD-like ferocity to produce technically perfect music and the next series of shots we'll be introduced to Cusack's more haggard 80's set Wilson who resigns himself to a laconic existence of overeating, oversleeping, and impotent creative libido whose well-being isn't his own to look after but remains too well-guarded by his sociopathic shrink Dr. Eugene Landy. Landy is played to the extreme by veteran character actor Paul Giamatti who all but eats this role up. Giamatti has been well-known for playing sniveling, inward-thinking and manipulative neurotics and this may go down as his most unrepentant and despicable part yet. So, if for some reason you have a rose-colored glasses impression of Giamatti, you will be undoubtedly unsettled by his portrayal for every single scene he's in. It is made clear, early on, that Landy is this film's antagonist as in real-life he began over-medicating Wilson and was able to coerce him to signing various deals and documents and even the legal keys to his estate. Landy started as his psychiatrist but then realizing the depravity of Wilson's condition, decided to use that to his power-play advantage. It is a spine-tingling display of showmanship from Giamatti who continues to impress.

Elsewhere, the cast fills out very nicely. Elizabeth Banks, fresh off of her side-splitting comic role and directorial debut with "Pitch Perfect 2" portrays Wilson's 1980's love interest and, later, wife, Melinda Ledbetter. Her performance is truly transformative as she starts off as a flirty and witty sensual foil after an awkward, chance encounter with Wilson at the Cadillac car dealership where she works. By the films later acts, she becomes his go-to confidant and eventual savior from the clutches of the venomous Landy. Banks, who has had a very diverse comic career with many Judd Apatow-produced and/or directed efforts such as 2008's "Role Models", 2005's "The 40 Year Old Virgin" and frequent Apatow collaborator and next-in-line to the "Ant Man" throne Paul Rudd's "Our Idiot Brother" really oozes with sunny charm and buoyant disposition. Her role as Melinda astutely walks the tight-rope of dramedy at the start of the film where her character is innocent yet independent. But, ultimately, just as the real-life Melinda did, in a gargantuan effort to save her beloved future husband, she becomes incredibly resourceful in order to reclaim what’s left of Wilson and to thwart the scheming Dr. Landy. This is really one of the few times Banks goes for more dramatic fare and just like in her previous features; she brings that effortless and well-meaning charm and constancy to a narrative that is occasionally jumbled.

Pohlad's utilization of the Beach Boys' music is also very spot on, if somewhat predictable. Trent Reznor's own Atticus Ross contributed heavily to the soundtrack with several pieces including "Deep End," "B & M Studio," and "Into Mercy," and he also served as one of the arrangers when using the Boys' own catalog. The tunes perfectly punctuate and permeate the scenes - the early acts of the film feature a "walking on water" Wilson who is ever so positive. Thus, the early bubblegum Monkees-like material is used to draw attention to his and his other band mates’ states of mind. But, when the going gets tough and Wilson gives in to his complexities, anxieties, depression and, later, substance abuse, the more experimental Wilson songs are used to display a racked mind losing control of its reality and Wilson hard-charging fast and undisciplined as ever down a rabbit hole. The film allows us to make a few assertions - should we empathize with Wilson's condition? Was Dr. Landy initially very helpful to him and then somewhere along the way Landy became intentionally power-hungry? Why was Melinda fueled with such a desire to help a rapidly decompensating Wilson if just to help him or to gain access to his fortune/estate? I pondered these thoughts, among others, and realized the purity of intent behind these characters in the face of such destruction. The film leaves these very open-ended in the best way possible.

Cinematically, the film takes a very neo-realist/post-modern approach. Clearly taking cues from Fellini's "La Dolce Vita," "Satyricon" & "8 1/2" mixed in with Cronenberg's film adaptation of William Burroughs's "Naked Lunch" and a dash of Kafka-esque fantasy imagery, the movie spends the majority of its brisk two-hour running time on the psychological depth and interplay between all of the key players while offering a very candid and unflinching look at the mind of Brian Wilson. The time-period switches are never jerky and the nature of the dual-performances of Paul Dano as young Wilson and John Cusack as older, washed-up Wilson, merit awards consideration. Cusack has more work cut out for him as he paints the disfigured, emotionally and mentally scarred savant with captivating aplomb. Sans the fact that he doesn't bare the closest resemblance to the real Wilson, it actually doesn't matter. He gives him a soft and tender side and the scenes he shares with Melinda remain the highlights of the film. Dano captures Wilson's mad-genius at work. All of the studio scenes resonate so well because they demonstrate just how particular he was. He would go around to each musician and play their part and hand their instrument back to them so they could get it absolutely note-perfect. He would drift off into space with the aid of LSD and his phobias were also well-documented with his fear of flying. Of the two, Dano's part was more expository while also being educational as his scenes shed light on his contentious relationship with his former manager and father who he would up firing. Of the two, it’s difficult to anticipate who will be nominated but here's hoping the dual-performances don't cancel each other out.

It makes sense that screenwriter Oren Moverman was hired to write this film's screenplay. Moverman was the scribe behind Todd Haynes's structurally similar 2007 Bob Dylan biopic "I'm Not There" which featured not one, not two, but six very distinct versions of Dylan at various points in his storied career and life. Portrayed by A-list heavy-hitters such as Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Richard Gere and the late Heath Ledger in one of his final roles, that picture was more dissonant due to the sheer volume of its moving parts and the transitions weren't always smooth. Here, Moverman displays a tighter control over all of the dense elements and in dialing down the interpretations from six to two, is able to dedicate more focus and specificity while keeping the narrative cohesive and within his and the audience's reach. You could also glean from the writing that Moverman is a fan of Wilson and the Boys' with his dialogue snappy, quirky yet polarizing when it needs to be. Like some of the best records, namely the Beatles's "Rubber Soul," there is not an ounce of fat on this piece and the emotional beats never feel forced, contrived or half-baked.

Whether you are an enthusiastic listener of the Beach Boys' or other contemporary groups from that era of music, "Love & Mercy" will go down as a definitive biopic for not just Wilson but for how to do a music biography right. It is a poetic, visual and soul-stirring odyssey of a fully lived but often misunderstood life of a tormented artist whose gifts came at great cost. If you haven't been turned onto the Boys' music previously, after watching this you will no doubt feel compelled to snag their stuff on ITunes and pick-up the 20 years late Wilson album "Smile" which was finally released in 2004 after a tiresome legal battle over copyright. Highly recommended.

 A scene-stealing Paul Giamatti as the super-controlling and domineering psychiatrist Dr. Eugene Landy, antagonist to Wilson and Co.
A scene-stealing Paul Giamatti as the super-controlling and domineering psychiatrist Dr. Eugene Landy, antagonist to Wilson and Co. | Source

ABC Profile on "Love & Mercy" - Real-Life Brian Wilson & Melinda React To Film - "Tough To Watch"


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • profile image

      Pat Mills 

      3 years ago from East Chicago, Indiana

      I don't think Wilson resigned himself to Landy's regimen. In the context of this movie, Brian sent an SOS that Melinda somehow came to understand. Like you, though, I'm glad I saw it.

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 

      3 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Wonderful review, Douglas. I look forward to seeing this movie.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)