The Beach Boys, the band behind such classic pop rock hits as "Good Vibrations" and "Surfin' U.S.A.", have come to represent the ideal of the carefree lifestyles of California youth. But like so many other artists thrust into the limelight, their public image hides a darker private life. In Bill Pohlad's "Love & Mercy", the life and struggles of front man Brian Wilson are brought to the fore in this probing biopic.
Switching between the 1960s and the 1980s, "Love & Mercy" follows the trajectory of Brian Wilson from his highest highs to his lowest lows. In his younger days (played by Paul Dano), he's seen as a gifted singer-songwriter on the verge of a major breakthrough. Diligently at work on his "Pet Sounds" album, he secludes himself in the studio while his bandmates go on tour. Experimenting with new sounds, Wilson aspires to make one of the greatest albums in history. But his style clashes with the band's vision of further mainstream success, and when subsequent critical acclaim isn't reflected in the album sales, the bond between them begins to break. Years later, we see Wilson as a middle-aged man (played by John Cusack), struggling to cope with his failures. The music is still playing in his head, but it's affecting his ability to function normally. To make matters worse, he's under the watch of a draconian psychotherapist (Paul Giamatti), intent on keeping him constantly medicated. As the title suggests however, love and mercy are just around the corner, as a kindhearted woman (Elizabeth Banks) comes into his life at just the right time.
Based on a script co-written by Michael Alan Lerner and Oren Moverman, this tale of misunderstood genius is not your typical rousing biopic. Much like its protagonist, it experiments with formula, juggling two distinct storylines played by different actors. The 1960s section provide beautiful context for the overarching narrative, capturing a docudrama feel as the unobtrusive camera lets the music do the work. In other scenes, we get a more intimate character study, showing Wilson's creative process during his alone time. In contrast, the 1980s are more austere, with Wilson's vigour subdued by medication to control his paranoid schizophrenia. Even the romance bears a tinge of melancholy.
Yet while Pohlad displays astute directorial instincts throughout, the script takes less chances as it goes through some of the usual music biopic tropes. But you likely won't mind the clichés, due to the superlative performances which elevate the film. In the younger incarnation of Wilson, Paul Dano captivates the audience as he captures the spontaneity and insecurities of this complex character. As his future companion, Elizabeth Banks is beautiful and delicate, bringing a calming, comforting aura. But it's the heartbreaking John Cusack who deserves the highest praise, playing a troubled man battling the demons of his past and present. He hasn't been this good in years, evoking so much pain and heartache through his fragile, whispered voice.
And all three performances strike at the heart of the film's core theme, in the way that they speak to the pervading loneliness that afflicts a man of Wilson's genius. Dano's animated performance shows a man who wants to share his passion with others, yet is constantly impeded by even his closest relatives. Banks' attentive focus on Cusack conveys her own recognition of how the world abandoned him. Cusack meanwhile is the most literally lonely of them all, frequently shot in quiet, empty rooms.
Indeed, "Love & Mercy" would put up a strong argument for best ensemble of the year, if it weren't for a slightly tone-deaf performance by Paul Giamatti. His is perhaps the most "Giamatti" performance you'll see - which is usually not a bad thing - but his transparent villainy is at odds with the film around him. It's especially noticeable since the memory of his more measured interpretation of a similar character in "Straight Outta Compton" is so fresh in our minds. Regardless, Pohlad's stylistic choices and the terrific lead performers combine to make "Love & Mercy" one of the most rewarding films of the year.
Now in terms of Oscar, its chances seem limited considering the much more high profile films to come. So while the performances are particularly deserving of attention, I doubt they'll be able to push through. At best, the film may be able to score a token Best Original Screenplay nod to go along with its unlikely Best Picture bid.