Too-schematic depiction of a troubled pop music genius
It’s another music biopic essaying a fresh angle, I’m Not There mode minus four. Instead of the six actors Todd Haynes deployed to depict the multifacetedness of Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys’ troubled Brian Wilson is represented bipolarly as Paul Dano young, brilliant and strange, and John Cusack middle-aged, tired, beaten-down, and stranger, and in the control of an evil shrink, Eugene Landy (a shrill, unsubtle Paul Giamatti). Dano and Cusack do their best and have riveting moments; they are not well served by fellow cast members, writing, or direction. The other band members, seemingly chosen for looks, are not clearly distinguished.
Eschewing performance or discovery scenes, the movie plunges in with its pattern of swinging back and forth between young and older Brian. And this arouses curiosity, till the film beats us to submission with its relentlessly schematic style and downbeat mood. The sun bleached (and distressed) “film” images of the Beach Boys in halcyon early days, however false their health and cheer, are charming to watch; all that will come later will be dark and painful, even when sun-drenched. Things begin most promisingly in a pleasingly offbeat pre-title sequence with Dano wonderfully channeling Wilson, discovered in semi-darkness muttering instructions to himself about his coming compositions. Dano looks like Wilson; Cusack doesn’t, and they don’t look like each other, which matters more than in Haynes’ Dylan film where the Brechtian gambit was more obvious.
The film nonetheless has some striking scenes. None better than the curiously intimate one where Cusack as older Brian first meets his new future wife, entering a Cadillac showroom and climbing inside a pale blue Fleetwood with the salesperson, the beautiful blonde Melinda Ledbetter (an appealing if nuance-free Elizabeth Banks), who one day will save him from the evil shrink and get him his life back, as end titles reassuringly tell us. There are various times when Dano, who throws himself into the role not just by gaining weight, seems wholly at ease playing, singing, composing, and directing studio musicians. For all that the songs are somehow not as evident as one would expect, the music in the sense of an artistic product is well served.
But something’s wrong with the movie’s structure. Because it’s so repetitious, hammering the same theme, tortured artist (from inside and out), life gone wrong, past (including mean, condescending father) haunting him; band mates rejecting his new creative directions, curiously Love & Mercy leaves itself no time for storytelling, and though two hours long, keeps seeming rushed.
It really does detail Wilson’s process of composition, though, and in a way that works well on film. This is because some of his most notable compositions were completed while the rest of the band was on tour without him and he put songs together solely with the ace studio musicians known, as we all know now from the recent documentary, as The Wrecking Crew.
But no matter how much Brian suffered, we are made to suffer too much. Curiously, it isn’t so helpful after all to hear through Dolby Digital speakers the voices sounding inside a deranged mind. And there’s no torture like having to watch Paul Giamatti do an abusive freak-out on poor Brian, and then a worse, more obscenity-laced one, on poor Melinda, sequestered in her office at the Cadillac showroom. But for sheer obviousness, there’s no beating the scenes of Brian’s abusive and withholding father Murry (a colorless Bill Camp) being abusive and withholding.
How and why did Brian get into this mess, and why didn’t his brothers notice? Did his admiration for the Beatles’ Revolver album lead him to imitation, or was it the other way around? For all its browbeating, Love & Mercy raises many more questions than it answers, and while it may avoid the most egregious tormented-artist stereotypes, it leaves out many important details.
Credited as a writer with the relatively unknown and undistinguished Alan Michael Lerner (credit:Dumb and Dumber), one is surprised to see the name of Oren Moverman, but Moverman did a lot of the writing on I’m Not There, so one must assume he’s paring down and recycling here. Pohlad, who comes from wealth, has a good record as a producer, with titles like Brokeback Mountain, Into the Wild, and The Tree of Life in his CV, but maybe he should have let Moverman do the directing.
Love & Mercy, 120 mins., debuted at Toronto Sept. 2014; also Berlinale, SXSW, and many other fests. US and Canada theatrical debut 5 June 2015 and in the UK, 10 July.
DIRECTOR: BILL POHLAD
WRITERS: OWEN MOVERMAN, MICHAEL A. LERNER
STARS: PAUL DANO, JOHN CUSACK, ELIZABETH BANKS, PAUL GIAMATTI, JAKE ABEL, KENNY WORMALD, BRUCE DAVERN, BILL CAMP, GRAHAM ROGES
RUNTIME: 121 MINS APPROX