Love & Mercy (2015)

Content by Tony Macklin. Originally published on June 3, 2015 @ tonymacklin.net.

Love & Mercy is a Beach Boys' song that quavers.

When Love & Mercy is sweet, it soars; when it is sour, it stalls. It's at its sweetest when it is about creativity. One scene when Brian Wilson (Paul Dano) is working with an LA studio band - the Wrecking Crew - it's exhilarating. There's the feeling of ebullient creativity.

But when Love & Mercy brings its "villains" crashing in, it has the taint of clunky mean-spiritedness.

Love & Mercy is based on the life of Brian Wilson. Brian founded the Beach Boys with his two brothers, a cousin, and a neighbor. But Brian was the driving, commanding force.

The film has the difficult task of bopping from decade to decade, jerking back and forth. The tone of the film is up for grabs. The 1960s version of Brian (Paul Dano) is striving for more, better music, more truth. He's trying to take the group where they don't want to go, out of their comfort zone. He says to Mike Love (Jake Abel), "Mike, you can leave if you want. I'm working with the cellos."

The 1980s Brian (John Cusack) is a vulnerable victim, trying to recover from his own insecurities, drug addiction, and mental collapse. He is under the absolute, dehumanizing control of psychotherapist Dr. Eugene Landry (Paul Giamatti).

In a 1980s Cadillac showroom, Brain meets saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), and their relationship begins. It's slow, uncertain, and sporadic. But it's human connection - something Brian doesn't have in his life.

Scenes are juxtaposed between the two decades, when Brian had his rise and fall, and when he is offered a faint hope of escaping.

Paul Dano captures the desperate ambition and fear of the younger Brian. And John Cusack is as good as he's ever been as the older, severely psychologically-wounded Brian.

But the actor who is most responsible for salvaging the humanity in Love & Mercy is Elizabeth Banks who is wonderful as the guardedly-perceptive Melinda. In a role that almost cries out for overreaction, she downplays it. Her delivery of some of her lines is deliciously subtle.

The major problem in Love & Mercy is the characters and performances of Dr. Landry played by Paul Giamatti and Brian's father Murry Wilson (Paul Camp). Giamatti doesn't let a shout go unshouted, and Camp doesn't let a scowl be unscowled.

Many of the facts in Love & Mercy are dire, but that doesn't mean you throw the humanity aside.

A better director than Bill Pohlad might have prevented the two characters from being shrill caricatures. The two actors give one-note performances. One note in a film about Brian Wilson?

The screenplay credited to three writers doesn't help. But at least we're not dragged through the death of Dennis Wilson. In a moment of rare discretion, the fact is merely mentioned by Brian.

Love & Mercy is essentially factual, but the facts often are delivered with directorial sweaty palms. Love & Mercy is the first film directed by financier-producer Pohlad.

The essence of the Beach Boys is that for days after seeing Love & Mercy, "God Only Knows" may still reverberate in one's head.

The Good Vibrations outlast the bad.

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