Brian Wilson Received Neither "Love" Nor "Mercy" Review

There's a lot to lose out there.

Brian Wilson had a pretty rough go of it. Physically and emotionally abused by his father (Bill Camp), in the band he gets little support from his brothers (Brett Davern and Kenny Wormald) and considerable hostility from his cousin Mike (Jake Abel), and later in life is mentally tortured by control freak Dr. Gene Levy (Paul Giamatti). All the while, Brian (Paul Dano/John Cusack) suffers from a significant mental illness--whether schizophrenia or something else is ambiguous--and writes the music that makes the Beach Boys a household name to this day. Love & Mercy (2015) fully and even ruthlessly expresses the torturous aspects of Wilson's life while still servicing the musical genius and fan expectations. To its credit, the film is far more devoted to the former than the latter.

Love & Mercy tells Brian's story along two parallel lines in the 60's with Paul Dano portraying Wilson's (musical and narcotic) experimental phase and John Cusack portraying Wilson's tortured--there's no other word for it--isolation during the 80's that is finally broken by Melinda (Elizabeth Banks). But don't let the color scheme fool you, the 60's weren't the good times and the 80's the hard times. As the rest of the band goes on tour, Brian stays home and gets to work on what will become the album Pet Sounds, which was a considerable departure from the bright pop tunes that had made them famous. He has fun and flourishes creatively, but when the boys come home the fun stops. His family doesn't understand the direction Brian wants to go in and pressure him to get back to basics. The viewer waits in vain for Brian to shout back that they can go write their own damn music if they don't like it, but sadly Brian just takes the shots one after the other.

As each storyline continues, you realize that Brian has never not been manipulated. As the film portrays it, anyone who actually loves Brian allows the manipulation to go on whether because they are themselves cowed--like the brothers--or...who knows? When we meet up with him in the 80's, Brian hadn't seen anyone in his family for years. That doesn't just happen. Not until Melinda comes into Brian's orbit--possibly for a puerile form of fame-adoring--does anyone take positive steps to help him. It can be a very frustrating viewing experience at times as you go for large swaths of the film without anyone showing an ounce of compassion for this character and usually being selfish, malicious, and sometimes aggressively gauche. Of course, that makes co-writers Oren Moverman and Michael Lerner's payoff all the sweeter when it comes.

The performances in the film are very strong. Paul Giamatti is courageously mean and manipulative provoking the kind of hatred I reserve for very few villains. Dano was as devoted to his character as one usually expects and, for me, is as slightly annoying as usual. There are some actors who will never charm me and Dano is one of those. His vulnerability in this film, however, is mammoth and overcomes that taste issue. Cusack is less well known for the kind of character work he puts on display here, going to levels of psycho-autistic awkwardness uncharted in his filmography. His problem is the opposite of Dano's, having to hide away the mountains of natural charisma in his folksy delivery. Here, one wonders why--other than his fame--Melinda can stand to be around him for more than one meeting. Elizabeth Banks somehow makes me think that she might just want to break the hold Giamatti's character has on Wilson even before the script catches up with her. Maybe that was just me projecting my hopes on the only decent character in the movie.

Bonus features

Audio commentary with director Bill Pohlad and executive producer Oren Moverman, "A California Story: Creating the Look of Love & Mercy", "A-Side/B0Side: Portraying the Life of Brian Wilson", and deleted scenes.

"Love & Mercy" is on sale September 15, 2015 and is rated PG13. Drama. Directed by Bill Pohlad. Written by Oren Moverman, Michael A. Lerner. Starring Elizabeth Banks, John Cusack, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti.

Jason Ratigan • Staff Writer

A lawyer-turned-something-else with a strong appreciation for film and television.  He knows he can't read every great book ever written, but seeing every good movie ever made is absolutely doable.  Check out his other stuff on Wordpress.


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