Brian Wilson (yes, that Brian Wilson, as played by John Cusack) sits at a restaurant table across from his date, the fetching Melinda (Elizabeth Banks) alongside two friends. Apropos of essentially nothing, Wilson recounts a history of physical abuse laid down by his father, recreating the violence of the beatings by punching his own hand and slamming his fists onto the table. His friends excuse themselves as Melinda attempts to comfort the troubled former pop star; she listens intently as Wilson tells her of his troubled childhood. The camera lingers on Banks’ face and, with the aid of a well-placed mirror above the cushions of their booth, the reflection of Cusack’s. It is a simple camera trick, but an effective one, allowing the scene to play out as a long take with coverage. The emotional development of their relationship is so central to Bill Pohlad’s film that this shot, how it captures both of their faces at once without needing to interrupt the tension with cuts, is masterful in its execution.
It is rather surprising that it took this long for a proper Brian Wilson biopic to surface. His life, from the California surfing era of the early Beach Boys through the psychedelic experimentations of Pet Sounds, from his years as an invalid through his return to the spotlight late in life, Wilson had the sort of experience destined for the silver screen. To tell his story, Pohlad relies on parallel timelines switching back and forth between Wilson in his prime (Paul Dano) in the 60’s, and at his nadir in the 80’s (Cusack) while he is under the thumb of the sinister Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), who has kept him from his family and controls his every move. As Brian becomes romantically entangled in Melinda, she questions both the methods and expertise of his caretaker. The 60’s scenes revolve around the height of The Beach Boys’ success, tempered by Brian’s continually erratic behavior as he stops touring with the group to focus on his songwriting and musical arrangements. His work in the studio becomes more and more complex as he pushes himself tirelessly to bring Pet Sounds (and later “Good Vibrations”) to life.
The juxtaposition between the two eras in Brian Wilson’s life is arguably the best way to hammer home the emotional fallout of the Cusack sections of the film. Dano’s Wilson feels so vital, so overflowing with ideas and energy that when it is stripped away, it can’t be anything but heartbreaking. Dano’s performance is mannered, like all of his performances really, and while his tics and quirks can sometimes seem like pure surface, here they are genuine. It helps that Dano’s resemblance to Wilson in his 20’s is uncanny to say the least. It can be dangerous to cast a biopic on the basis of looks, but Pohlad does well here, not just with Dano but the rest of The Beach Boys as well (they even recreate the promo video for “Sloop John B” and behind the scenes footage of the recording of "Good Vibrations" with loving accuracy). They look the part, but they act it as well. WIlson’s genius is presented as something almost effortless; he appears to conjure songs like “God Only Knows” and “Good Vibrations,” some of the greatest pop songs of the era, from the ether on command. The inevitable studio montage of the wild recording techniques of Pet Sounds is a delight, but it is tempered by his bandmates’ response to their marginalization and frustration over Wilson’s exacting studio production (Jake Abel’s Mike Love is particularly strong in those moments). As Wilson’s deterioration intensifies and the voices in his head that would leave him an invalid for years begin to take hold, that sense of lost potential overwhelms.
Of course, lost potential is the driving force of the Cusack passages of the film. It is the more melodramatic of the two stories, thanks predominantly to Giamatti’s effectively monstrous villainy as well as the romance with Banks’ Melinda, but that constant reminder of where he was then compared to where he is now soaks it all in a powerful melancholy. Cusack may not share the resemblance to the real man Paul Dano does, but that is of no real consequence. This is among his best performances, easily his greatest since High Fidelity at the least. He is such a profoundly broken man, but he retains the spark of his former genius, and while he may not know how to regain what he has lost, he knows he lost it, and that is what matters. The true secret weapon, though, is Banks, who is radiant on the screen and so achingly empathetic. While Love & Mercy may feature among the best performances of John Cusack’s career, it is without doubt the best work Banks has done. The heart of the film beats along with her.
There is unfortunately one glaring misstep in the third act, as Pohlad lays the symbolism on thick and viscous when the third act arrives and he feels the need to directly link the two timelines of his film. The attempt is clunky and incongruous, something that hints at a sort of psychology via psychedelia, but in practice it simply does not work. The film has already done all the necessary work to link the two versions of Brian Wilson on a primal level; it is not the sort of theme that needs to be stated as directly as it is. But Love & Mercy recovers quickly from its stumbles when it comes back to what works, Cusack and Banks sharing the screen, setting it ablaze with their chemistry, finding comfort and salvation in each other. And sure, ending a movie about The Beach Boys with “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” is about as subtle as a brick through a window, but these are but minor quibbles in the face of the immense quality that surround them.
Biopics can be so fiendishly difficult to get right. So often they fall victim to being all about the performance, or wallow in treacly over-sentimentality. The best biopics find that one defining characteristic and drape the film over it, whether that is the quiet outrage of Selma or the cold, calculated perfectionism of The Social Network, to name but a few. Love & Mercy is more of a traditional biopic than either of those two films, but it succeeds in the same manner they do. There is a powerful, unyielding emotional truth at the core of this film, one that is so pure it stings the eyes and becomes difficult to suppress the desire to look away. This film is destined to get lost in the shuffle come awards season, which is a shame, because though awards are ultimately meaningless at the end of the day, they bring with them exposure and attention, and Love & Mercy is truly deserving of both. This is a special, special film, warts and all.