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