Sunday, June 7, 2015

Review: Love and Mercy

Image courtesy of Roadside Attractions.
It's been said that there is often a fine line between genius and insanity and Bill Pohlad's "Love and Mercy," which chronicles the career and turbulent personal life of The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, is a very good representation of this belief. It's also one of the better musical biopics of recent years.

In the film, Paul Dano and John Cusack portray Wilson - and both very well, I might add - at various stages in his life - Dano in the mid-1960s as the singer-songwriter composes the music for "Pet Sounds," the band's masterpiece, and Cusack during the mid-1980s as Wilson is on the verge of crumbling.

The picture jumps back and forth through time and uses the burgeoning romance between Wilson (Cusack) and Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks, a career best), a California car saleswoman who gets involved with the musician, only to find out that he is being manipulated and controlled by Eugene Landy (a creepy Paul Giamatti), a psychotherapist known for his 24-hour treatment program who micromanages every aspect of his patients' lives.

One of the film's more engrossing aspects is how Landy, whose character disproves my theory that Giamatti can never play a truly unlikable character, is paralleled to Wilson's cretinous father. Wilson, although brilliant while in the recording studio, is seen as a man who cannot escape being controlled by mentally or physically abusive father figures. And Melinda, although she becomes romantically entangled with Wilson, is, in a sense, a mother figure that he never had.

The performances by Dano and Cusack portray two different men, but they are equally as good. Dano is Wilson the Boy Genius, bringing in every instrument imaginable, including the voices of farm animals, to record the seminal 1966 opus "Pet Sounds," while Cusack gives us the portrait of a man barely holding on and forced to ask Landy, his caretaker, for permission to date, eat or leave his home.

Music biopics are often a dime a dozen. They typically follow an artist's humble beginnings, rise to prominence and, often, eventual downfall due to drugs - and then, occasionally, a second chance. The gold standard for musical bios is Todd Haynes' brilliant Bob Dylan odyssey "I'm Not There," but the reason why "Love and Mercy" works is that while it follows the genre's formula to an extent, it is more about the mindset of a man who was frail to begin with rather than one undone by fame. And it is one of the more fascinating recent pictures about the creative process. This is a very well acted, visually impressive and thoughtful film.

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