Love & Mercy full movie review - "Love & Mercy" is an original, insightful and compelling look at the genius and the struggles of The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson.
Unfortunately, genius and mental illness sometimes go hand-in-hand.
Too often, the kind of genius that represents truly original thought is so unusual that it's perceived as being "crazy", but when we're talking about a literal, clinically-defined mental or emotional impairment, the issue becomes whether the mental illness is the cause or the result of the sick person's genius. It's a kind of chicken-egg question, but no matter which came first, mental illness hurts. It hurts the person suffering from it and those who care about him or her and, left untreated (or poorly treated), it can destroy those interpersonal relationships and, of course, the person who is ill ? genius and all. This was the problem, and nearly the fate, of Brian Wilson, founder of The Beach Boys. Wilson's struggle is the focus of the innovative and insightful biopic "Love & Mercy" (PG-13, 2:01).
Part of the problem in describing this movie is that the term "biopic" applies only in the loosest sense. This film is not a valentine to the Beach Boys, or even a chronicle of all the important events in the life of Wilson himself. The story's unusual structure is meant to convey a single major issue in his life ? an ongoing struggle with mental illness. The plot revolves around two pivotal periods in Wilson's personal history ? the late 1960s and the late 1980s ? when his illness began to have a significant effect on his life, and, later, when the treatment he received was exposed as more harmful than helpful and Wilson was able to start receiving proper care. Constructed as it is, the film's creative team decided to have two actors play Wilson ? Paul Dano for the earlier portion of the story and John Cusack for the later part. Those separate periods in Wilson's life unfold throughout the movie, which skillfully alternates between scenes from each, similar to the way "The Godfather, Part II" tells its tale, but without the sense that the earlier scenes are flashbacks. Both stories are told chronologically and as if they are happening simultaneously, both bringing Wilson's life to points of crisis and ultimately, to redemption.
The late 1960s' Brian Wilson was a young genius, at the height of his powers. A few well-chosen scenes (displayed as if they're bits of genuine archival footage) show The Beach Boys at their most popular ? clean-cut California kids cranking out hit after feel-good hit. By the late 60s, most of their biggest hits are behind them and Wilson is trying to move the band in new directions, gaining inspiration from his natural musical talent, innate creativity, some illicit drugs, and the voices and music that he hears in his head. The main focus in the late 60s scenes is the production of the classic album "Pet Sounds", which was critically acclaimed (and is now considered one of the greatest albums of all time), but was dispassionately received by many Beach Boys fans due to its radical departure from the band's signature upbeat songs. Except for a few scenes in which we see the band create "Good Vibrations", the focus is not so much on the music as on the man. It's a very human story which is both more personal and more relatable than a traditional biopic.
The late 1980s' Brian Wilson is a broken man being rebuilt by the radical 24-hour therapy of his psychiatrist and legal guardian, Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). There are bits of dialog to let us know how Wilson got to this point and how much Landy did to bring him back from the brink, but most of what we see in these portions of the story is the complete control that Landy exercises over his patient's daily life and personal affairs. Landy, or those on his staff, follow Wilson everywhere he goes. We can tell by the way Wilson talks and acts that he needs some level of supervision. What isn't as clear is whether his need for Landy's care has more to do with Wilson's actual mental state, the huge amount of medication Landy has Wilson taking or the near complete physical, mental and emotional dependence that Landy has caused Wilson to have on him. This is the situation that Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) walks into. She's a former model who is now selling cars. She and Brian meet when he comes to buy a Cadillac from the dealership where she works. In spite of Wilson's off-beat way of talking, Melinda is drawn to his sweet and fragile disposition and it's obvious that Wilson is immediately attracted to her too. As the two grow closer and Landy allows her, as he says "unprecedented access" to Wilson's life, she sees Landy's manipulations for what they are and feels compelled to help, regardless of the cost.
Those who can watch "Love & Mercy" without being distracted by the unconventional story-telling style are likely to find it both enlightening and enjoyable. The film provides rare insights into mental illness and shines a light on the need for the families and friends of such patients to remain active and attentive regarding their loved one's care. Beach Boys fans, and really, all music fans, will enjoy seeing the creative process behind one of the most important influences in the history of American popular music. And those who like a good romance or human drama will get that too. Last but not least, movie fans will appreciate the outstanding performances and will likely hope, as I do, that they are remembered come the next awards season. However, the film has a few too many slow moments, it could have done a better job of filling in some of the obvious gaps in the story, and the prevailing tone of the film is a little depressing, but its compelling story told in such an original way with such great actors outweighs its few imperfections. "B+"