PLOT: The life of Beach Boys' visionary Brian Wilson, from his early struggles with mental illness as a young man, to his eventual rehabilitation in the early nineties.
REVIEW: The Beach Boys have to be the most underrated musical group of all time. Too often dismissed as surf rock, anyone who really knows music from that era can tell you Brian Wilson was a John Lennon-level genius, with his Beach Boys album “Pet Sounds” being one of the best ever written. Like many geniuses, his personal life was a shambles, to the point that in the seventies he reportedly spent a full three years in bed.
LOVE & MERCY juxtaposes Wilson's “Pet Sounds/Smile” era, with his low point in the late eighties, where he found himself under the smothering care of a quack psychologist named Eugene Landy. Paul Dano plays Wilson as a young man, while John Cusack plays the older version. This is maybe a weird choice, as having two such different actors play the man gives LOVE & MERCY a somewhat disjointed feel. To the credit of both actors though, there is continuity to their performances, for which director Bill Pohlad (normally a producer) also deserves solid praise, as this kind of casting could have gone very wrong.
For his part, Cusack's better here than he has been for awhile. While the choice to not make Cusack up to resemble Wilson at all is strange (especially since Dano seems to have gained weight and changed his hair to look the part), he still comes off well, perfecting a lot of the mannerisms I've seen the older Wilson show in interviews over the years. His Wilson is a broken man, living under Landy's thumb, and utterly unable to make his own decisions, or even express himself when the compassionate Meredith (Elizabeth Banks) comes into his life.
His chemistry with Banks is strong, with her mostly carrying the eighties sections of the films, as the focus is really on Meredith's attempts to save Wilson from the abusive Landy, who's played by Paul Giamatti at his oiliest (although having seen footage of Landy in a Wilson doc – he nailed it). Banks is one of those people who just seems to radiate kindness, making it easy to invest in Meredith and Brian's relationship. Oren Moverman's (RAMPART) script really makes this a love story, and Banks and Cusack play off each other beautifully, with Banks expertly conveying a woman who's compassionate and appreciates Wilson's legacy, but won't be a doormat for anyone, least of all Landy, who she immediately sees through. Her romantic scenes with Cusack bring a lot out of him, and it reminds us what a solid romantic lead Cusack can be when given the chance. He hasn't seemed this engaged in years.
Yet, it can't be denied that the most compelling parts of Pohlad's film are the sections with Dano as he tries to shift the musical direction The Beach Boys are heading in. He butts heads with his ogre father, as well as band-member Mike Love (Jake Abel) who dismisses “Pet Sounds” by saying, “even the happy songs sound sad.” Dano is magnetic as Wilson, and as solid as Cusack is, one can't help but wonder how it would have been if Dano had just been allowed to play Wilson at both parts of his life, as a little makeup would have likely done the trick.
Even though it's a little disjointed, overall LOVE & MERCY is a very effective biopic, and tells a compelling story. For Beach Boys fans this will be an obvious must-see with all the original recordings having been licenced, so when you get scenes of Dano as Wilson messing around with “The Wrecking Crew” (a legendary group of studio musicians) you hear the original masters stripped down and deconstructed. But, even if you're not overly familiar with Wilson's legacy, you'll still get a lot out of this, not the least of which is the need to hit iTunes and download “Pet Sounds” and the re-constructed “Smile” immediately.