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'Love & Mercy' is a mostly artistic Brian Wilson movie

The Beach Boy genius gets an unusual biopic, with Paul Dano and John Cusack playing him during different eras.

‘Love & Mercy’
Bill Pohlad
Stars: John Cusack, Paul Dano
3 (out of 5) Globes

“Love & Mercy” stars two separate actors as Beach Boy genius Brian Wilson, and one of its screenwriters is Oren Moverman, who had a hand in Todd Haynes’ deeply experimental Bob Dylan whatzit “I’m Not Here.” But that makes it sound more avant-garde than it is. Unlike most biopics, it focuses on two slithers of Wilson’s life story, not the whole thing, but it still offers a clean, even reassuring fall-and-rise tale. Even the stunt casting makes perfect sense: It hops back and forth between the ’60s, when Wilson is played by Paul Dano, and the ’80s, when he (now John Cusack) was struggling to find some stability after a long, troubled stretch. Even if Wilson became, as the film suggests, a different person entirely, it’s better two actors than doing Dano up in terrible old age makeup.

It’s still relatively strange for a biopic, though the bar is low. We don’t even see peak Wilson (that is, Dano) right away, instead meeting Cusack’s middle-aged, damaged version. When we meet he’s at the control of Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), an “unconventional” psychotherapist who had helped slim him down from his bed-ridden years but also refused him contact with much of his family or the rest of humanity. To his rescue comes one Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), a model-turned-car salesperson who met him by chance and managed to sneak into his — this, despite the protestations of his doctor, who vacillates between Classic Giamatti pop-a-blue-vein shoutfests and quieter and wormier mere passive-aggression, where he tries to get what he wants by badly pretending to be people's friend. (Landy's credibility is further subtracted by a very funny hairpiece.)

Spliced into this is Dano’s Wilson writing and recording “Pet Sounds,” followed by the aborted “Smile,” which experience would lead to a mental break that would last till the era covered in the other half of the film. Wilson was trying to take The Beach Boys from innocuous hit-makers to next-next-next level artists, and Dano, pretty much ideally cast, is seen bopping excitedly about studios, whipping about studio musicians, who’d be pissed were they not genuinely thrilled to be actually using their copious gifts. “Love & Mercy” is not subtle about taking sides; Mike Love (an enjoyably predatory Jake Abel) is a jerk, and his dad (Bill Camp) is worse. They are one-note monsters, whereas Ledbetter — thanks in large part to Banks' deeply felt performance — never once suggests gold-digger.


What makes “Love & Mercy” more than a straightforward, unambiguous ode to the sensitive genius as martyr is the confident way it’s been directed. Bill Pohlad, heretofore a producer (of such boldly made works as “The Tree of Life” and “12 Years a Slave”), lets scenes play out slowly and often in one shot or in deeply unhurried shot-reverse shot. Scenes between the older Wilson and Melinda allow the nervous tension between lines to linger, offering plenty of time for Cusack to navigate between awkward and touching, and Banks to pull off the miraculous feat of looking both creeped-out and in love. Her performance is all on her face, and Pohlad lets you see all of it. Meanwhile, on the other side of the movie, the scene where Dano plays a rough version of “God Only Knows” begins in close-up, looking as though he’s just playing it for himself, before the camera swings around to reveal his dad in the background, ready to pounce on and belittle Paul McCartney’s future favorite-ever song because it doesn’t sound like innocuous surf rock.

Pohlad’s minimalist-formalist approach to directing — and his desire to not ruin performances with too much cutting — helps sell a screenplay that, in other hands, could have seemed simplistic, even, in its way, traditional. Still, it does go a different direction than most biopics. Wilson doesn’t so much get his groove back as embrace normality, which is to say marriage and family. The guy who wrote some of the world’s most beautiful music and stayed in bed for three years effectively becomes one of us. (That he would finally finish “Smile,” albeit maybe not the “Smile” he once intended, another decade or so later is reduced to a postscript.) Even the lead performances don’t scream Brian Wilson; neither Dano nor Cusack fall back on familiar Wilson mannerisms, like talking out of the side of their mouths. They give performances, not impersonations, and at times, and in a great way, “Love & Mercy” doesn’t feel like a Beach Boys movie at all. Now that’s radical.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
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