SXSW Film Review – Love & Mercy
Love & Mercy
Love & Mercy tells the story of Brian Wilson, a member of The Beach Boys and the creative genius behind their hits. The film jumps from one point in Brian Wilson’s life in the 1960s (played by Paul Dano) to Wilson in the 1980s (played by John Cusack) and goes back and forth through the film. While The Beach Boys as a band are there in the film, this is a film focused on Brian Wilson’s major influence on the sound and construction of The Beach Boys music and his problems with mental instability.
Not being alive in the 1960s, the history of The Beach Boys and the evolution of their sound is one of the best parts of the film. If you are to believe this film, Brian Wilson was the brains and the obsessive compulsive guy that drove the band to move past their hits to a new sound. While the band, comprised of Mike Love (Jake Abel), Dennis Wilson (Kenny Wormald), Carl Wilson (Brett Davern), and Al Jardine (Graham Rodgers), wanted to maintain their hit sound, Brian Wilson wanted to move past what was expected of them, much to the chagrin of the rest of the band. On the other hand, you have his father, Murry Wilson (Bill Camp), who taunted Brian and belittled his influence, even after the band cut ties to Murry. Through it all, Brian tried to maintain a normalcy. He married and had kids. The film does portray the inner struggle of Brian well. There is a frustrating obsession for sound (the moments of madness are Paul Dano’s best) combined with the band taking advantage (or at least not appreciating) of his talent.
The 1980s portion of the film focuses on the further mental instability of Brian, while he is being controlled and taken advantage of by his therapist, Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). The entrance of Melinda into his life is a positive one and it results in his life turning around.
The first thing that threw me off was John Cusack’s portrayal of Brian Wilson. The film begins with him showing up at a car dealership and buying a car outright from a pretty saleswoman, Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks). Melinda does not have a clue who he is, and frankly, neither did I. While I caught on pretty fast that he plays the older version of Brian Wilson, there is nothing physically about Cusack that is changed to make him resemble Wilson. It is basically Cusack with his black hair in a bowling shirt, perhaps with some additional weight, and that’s about it.
When you put Cusack against Paul Dano’s performance, there is nothing that connects the two other than they are playing someone of the same name. Dano’s costume and light brown hair in a sixties cut makes me believe that he is part of The Beach Boys. His performance is complex and tormented. There was no effort on the production’s part to link the two versions of the same character. While Cusack does a fine enough job acting, his physical characteristics fail to let him transform completely into his character. Unfortunately, the stark differences bugged me the entire film.
One cannot walk away from Love & Mercy without appreciating the genius of Brian Wilson and what he went through to get to where he is today. Without him, we would not have those hit Beach Boys songs. However, the production did not go the distance with its depiction of the older Brian. Because of John Cusack’s lack of physicality for his role, the film feels half-finished. The early half is brilliantly done with a remarkable portrayal by Paul Dano. Had they continued with Dano or just tried to make Cusack look somewhat similar to Brian Wilson, the film would have been fantastic. This is a must-see for a Beach Boys fan, but if an actor not investing physically in a character would bother you, wait for a home viewing.