Friday, June 12, 2015

"Love & Mercy"

 3 / 5 

Love & Mercy is half of a fantastic film and half of a so-so film, but the so-so bits are worth slogging through if you don't mind having "God Only Knows" and "Good Vibrations" running through your head for hours afterward.  Personally, I don't mind at all.

In Love & Mercy, John Cusack and Paul Dano both play Brian Wilson, one of the founding members of the Beach Boys, a band whose music has become ingrained in American culture.  Love & Mercy doesn't reveal anything about how the Beach Boys came to be or about the ways they struggled as artists to be known for more than just surfing music.  A more straightforward biopic narrative might actually have helped Love & Mercy, because its two halves are constantly warring for attention.

The first half, which feels less successful and more predictable, is about Brian Wilson in his 40s, when he was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic by a less-than-reputable psychiatrist (Paul Giamatti) and falls in love with a woman (Elizabeth Banks) who begins to realize that the doctor doesn't have the best of intentions for his charge.

This part of the movie is generally engrossing, but nothing about it feels new or exciting.  The actors are all exemplary, and Giamatti in particular brings a disturbing energy to the role that keeps it interesting though predictable.  Cusack looks appropriately haggard and haunted, and Banks finds some substance in the underwritten role of perky, plucky heroine.

Where Love & Mercy really comes alive, though, is in the sections with Paul Dano as Wilson in his 20s.  While it tries way too hard to find a tangible reason for Wilson's mental problems, focusing in on a bullying, domineering father, Dano consistently finds even more interesting places to take the role.

Wilson is an unabashed genius, but he's terrified by the source of his talent, his innate ability to hear how music comes together.  Love & Mercy comes tantalizingly close to being a modern-day Amadeus, a movie that explores the fine line between extraordinary talent and debilitating madness, and Dano has all the right instincts to take it there, but every time the movie comes close to letting us see further in to Wilson's chaotic mind, it pulls back to show us a near-comatose Cusack-Wilson moping about his Malibu house.

Love & Mercy goes off-the-rails wrong in a last-minute scene that seems to channel 2001: A Space Odyssey, of all things, but even that colossal mistake can't damage some genuine brilliance.  One spectacular scene shows how Wilson perplexed even his studio musicians with his off-kilter compositions that seemed all wrong on paper but blended together perfectly when played.

Love & Mercy barely touches on the relationships Wilson might have had with his brothers or his first wife, but more than makes up for that oversight by giving great latitude to Dano to portray a tortured, scared artist.

It's a good movie, made all the better by Dano's unflinching performance and some flashes of real brilliance that make the end result seem better, in retrospect, than the sum of its parts.  There's nothing exactly wrong with the Cusack-Banks sections, but imagining the film that could have been made by focusing only on the younger Wilson brings to mind one of the Beach Boys' own lyrics: Wouldn't it be nice?  Yes, that film would probably be nice, indeed.

Viewed June 12, 2015 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


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