I went into Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy knowing absolutely nothing about it — and by nothing, I mean I didn’t even know what it was about. I had seen the poster in passing but never paid much attention to it. (I sometimes wish this happened more often, but in our media-soaked society, it’s nearly an impossible feat.) I certainly had no reason to expect that I was settling in for a most unusual biographical film about Brian Wilson.
How unusual is it? The film tells Wilson’s story from two points in time — separated by 20 years — and with two actors (Paul Dano and John Cusack) playing him. It isn’t structured in two sections, however, and it moves freely between the two periods. To say that the two stories play at once isn’t quite right, but neither can the earlier scenes be called flashbacks. There have certainly been more unorthodox approaches to biographical films — for example, Todd Haynes’ 2007 I’m Not There, co-written by Oren Moverman, who also co-wrote this.
The idea is to present Wilson at the perilous peak of his creative abilities and in the abyss into which he descended. There’s something nearing genius in this approach, but it comes with a built-in pitfall. No matter how good the later sections are, no matter how good the performances, no matter the inherent drama, this part of Love & Mercy cannot really match the force of the earlier part of the story. That’s not the fault of the film per se, but the fault of history — and the fact that the headiness of 1966 is just more interesting than the vacuum of 1986. Watching an artist — especially one who is as delicately balanced as Wilson — create his masterpiece (the Pet Sounds album) against the advice of nearly everyone, only to see him fall apart from it all — from his own demons and the naysaying of his family — is just more rewarding as complex drama.
The latter portions do work as drama, but they’re more traditional and less compelling. However, looked at as complementing the early sections, the later scenes work in a way that enhances the stronger material. While the Dano scenes might work on their own — and the Cusack scenes would not — they work better in context. Also, without the Cusack scenes, there’d be no shape to the film and certainly no satisfying ending. Things in the Dano section establish the Cusack one. The terrifying Dr. Eugene Landy (a detestable Paul Giamatti), who controls Wilson with drugs and authoritarian bullying, has his roots in Wilson’s own control-freak father (Bill Camp). Neither character is complete without the other, and the reasons that Wilson is so susceptible to Landy are grounded in his father. It’s what he’s comfortable with. Despite the fact that the Dano sections are more imaginative and fresher, the Cusack sections hold them in place and make sense of them.
The essential thing that Love & Mercy gets so right is the very dichotomy that drives the film — that gulf that separates the 1950s’ mindset of the early Beach Boys from the growing 1960s sensibility of Wilson’s expanding ambitions and visions. The very idea that Wilson was convinced he could take the Beach Boys beyond the realm of the Beatles’ Rubber Soul is symptomatic of that gulf — a gulf, the film seems to suggest, that even Wilson himself was unable to reconcile. In this regard, the film is brilliant, even in those moments where it doesn’t quite soar. The performances are all excellent. Dano is spectacular as the younger Brian Wilson, Cusack isn’t far behind him, nor are Elizabeth Banks and Paul Giamatti.