How should a movie
dramatize the process of profound harmonic understanding? What if it’s a wide
release? In Love & Mercy, a bedridden Brian Wilson struggles
mightily with almost becoming the star child from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Or something like that. Bill Pohlad’s biopic culminates in a surreally exalting
montage of Wilson at different ages (divvied up between Paul Dano and John
Cusack), stuck in bed and seeming at once super fragile and transcendently out
of this world.
Well, yes: One thing
most of us know about Wilson—here, it’s the first personal thing his future
girlfriend asks about during their meet-cute—is that he did spend a lot of
time tucked in, on account of psychological problems combined with an ambition
to be more than just a Beach Boy. And whatever else we may know, we really
can’t complain about the casting here. Dano’s wounded-bird innocence works well
in this mythology, as does the affable Cusackitude, even if sharing the role
underscores each actor’s way of seeming mostly like himself.
As for the girl, a
Cadillac saleswoman in the form of Elizabeth Banks, she’s the sweetest
tortured-genius-tolerator (and eventual rescuer) that any sensitive songsmith
lad could ever hope for, especially when he’s also got Paul Giamatti (reliably
fine) as a micromanaging monster of a therapist. Oh, and of course before the
counterproductive shrink, there was the counterproductive father (Bill Camp),
also the Beach Boys’ manager and, by many accounts, an abuser. The movie treats
these accounts with some discretion, but you know not to like the guy when he
can’t appreciate the greatness of “God Only Knows,” shyly pecked out by Brian
on a piano, only to be shrugged off by Dad as wishy-washy and dull. Tensions
with the rest of the band—Brian’s brothers Carl and Dennis, their cousin Mike
Love, and friend Al Jardine—also ensue, but it’s the Dad issues that seem most
Written by Oren
Moverman (who also wrote the rewardingly diffractive Bob Dylan biopic I’m
Not There) and Michael A Lerner, Pohlad’s film is maybe not the most
authoritative source on correlations between mental illness and
boundary-pushing pop songcraft, nor quite the nonpareil of movie biography
generally. But as a digest of a certain era’s sounds and styles, a portrait of
an artist as a wounded man and a groovy heart-warmer besides, it works.
In the current
context, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to read Love & Mercy
as some gentle rebuke to blockbuster-season excess. As the real Wilson sings
over its closing credits, “I was sittin’ in a crummy movie with my hand on my
chin. Oh, the violence that occurs; seems like we never win.” Not that you need
to see this movie to hear him sing that. Like summer, life is short (and feels
shorter than it used to). There is something to be said for getting a little
fresh air while the getting’s good. But not all the air is fresh. And not all
the movies are crummy.
LOVE & MERCY
With Dano, Cusack, Banks and Giamatti
Santa Fe Reporter
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