Thursday 16 July 2015


(Bill Pohlad, 2014)

The urge to explain a person is the downfall of so many biopics, and Love & Mercy cannot avoid this flaw. People are complex and contradictory, and not everything can be explained by a few flashbacks. But some cinema has decided that they can, they must, they will, and so at the start of the third act here, we have a "brave" scene where we see Brian Wilson (John Cusack) in bed, and then Pohlad tries to take us on a tour of his brain. There are jump cuts, loads of trick editing, as we see a mix of memories, ideas, music, and fantasies all colliding. This is pop-psychology at its most basic and reductive,  which attempts to explore what is "wrong" with Wilson and instead serves to caricature and over-simplify him.
Thankfully, much of the rest of the film is more sensitive and interesting. It tells parallel stories of Wilson at the peak of his powers in 1965-67, when he created Pet Sounds and Good Vibrations, after a panic attack on an airplane led him to quite touring with the Beach Boys. He is played in these scenes by Paul Dano, who is terrific, emphasising his childlike qualities and his melancholy with equal commitment and skill. These passages have the added bonus of using the sweet sweet music Wilson created in the '60s as their soundtrack, and probably the most enjoyable scenes in the film are those depicting him "playing the studio", directing session musicians to create his pop symphonies. As the film progresses these scenes darken as Wilson's mental problems begin, exacerbated by his drug use.
There are a few nice through-lines here: Wilson's attachment to abusive, controlling male figures is shown through his relationships with his father Murray, cousin and bandmate Mike Love, and finally with the Psychiatrist who became a sort of svengali for him, Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti).
But the heart of the story is his new relationship with Melinda (Elizabeth Banks) in the 1980s. She discovers just how monstrous Landy is and sets about releasing Wilson from his control, falling in love with this vulnerable man child and conflicted by how difficult his circumstances are.
Cusack and Banks have chemistry, and she is underrated as a dramatic actress, beautiful in a sunny, real way, her warmth and intelligence are always evident onscreen, and it is understandable that Wilson would be so instantly smitten. Cusack plays this older, damaged Wilson as a frightened, desperate shell, and allows a spark of life back into his eyes with the discovery of this woman.
Pohlad's direction is pedestrian, the script a little by-numbers, but the actors and that music carry it.

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