Love & Mercy (2015)
dir. Bill Pohlad
written by: Oren Moverman, Michael A Lerner
starring: Paul Dano, John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti
3.5 out of 4 stars
As far as music biopics go, even those with great performances (Ray, Walk the Line, La Vie En Rose) are life spanning fact monsters with little additional substance to prestige performances surrounding an impressive songbook; nothing resonates beyond a fondness for their music and an appreciation for the clearly famed-turned-bad life that led to their movie. Straight Outta Compton managed earlier this year to expand its value to the modern #BlackLivesMatter movement and continued abuse of power in police departments nationwide. That kind of cultural significance plucks a different heart string than the matters of an individual life, at this time referring to Brian Wilson’s turbulent, abusive struggles with mental illness in Love and Mercy.
Duel rolling the musical genius are Paul Dano, formulating his fantastical visions for an adult Beach Boys sound into Pet Sounds, one of the best albums ever produced, and John Cusack, buried under the stress of recovery addict and mistreated ward. Skipping between 1960s recording studios and 1980s beach house imprisonment, the past and future Brian Wilson struggles with his emerging and then debilitating mental illness. Director Bill Pohlad, better known for producing Oscar hits such as 12 Years a Slave and The Tree of Life, smoothly melds the worlds, seemingly disconnected, of screenwriters Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner script, a tale filled with handsome family drama and tremendous emotional breakdown, further raised out of melodrama by fine performances throughout the cast.
Dano and Cusack play two sides of the same disorder. Dano, making his big comeback after his expected breakout period between Little Miss Sunshine and There Will Be Blood, encompasses the terror Wilson encountered within his own mind. Trapped behind his own over encompassing thoughts, shifting bouts of instability and brilliance cover the range of necessities for a multifaceted character, both active and realistic while also tormented and lacking humanity. Dano encapsulates the wide birth of men this Beach Boy was.
Cusack, taking the later life struggles of a time trapped under the constant supervision of Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti, playing evil music manager again, but this time with more open malevolence), steers a Wilson who has forgotten his identity. Drugged and mislead, treated not unlike a mischievous dog or child, Wilson is torn to shreds, and Cusack performs this with all his fumbling might, leading this tendency into compulsion. Ranging from mumbling to catatonic, Cusack is vulnerable unlike any time in his history, and looked at next to his strong work in Maps to the Stars earlier this year, Cusack has shown great range.
Breaking out with notable dramatic humph is Elizabeth Banks as Melinda Ledbetter, Wilson’s future wife who helped save him from Dr Landy’s torment. Adding onto blockbuster and comedic acting success and a strong directorial debut this year, Banks takes the supportive lover role and discovers great depth within the kind words. Battling Giamatti’s volatile physician, Banks maintains measured strength with her silence, and her personal moments hold weight behind the concerned phone calls. Far more aware and relatable than even Kristen Wiig’s notable foray into the world of the dramatics, Banks has expanded her potential in impressive new directions.
A handsome piece of work, from the various retro beach house and record studios of bygone eras to the 60s sunshirts and 80s powersuits, Love & Mercy melds the sound and styles with the inner turmoil of the tortured artist. Abused since youth, Brian Wilson’s eternal struggle weighs more and more on him over time. Dano and Cusack present stages of pain and struggle all too personal with exceptional skill; these types of musical biopics need to overtake the standard form.