Director: Bill Pohlad
Stars: Paul Dano, John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti
Released: 10th July 2015 (UK)
Getting two actors to play one part halves your chance of getting an Oscar. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but sharing the role of Beach Boys musical genius, Brian Wilson in director Bill Pohlad’s mental-illness themed drama, Love and Mercy, Paul Dano and John Cusack are 50% less effective than they should have been. Two caricatures ‘past’ (Dano) and ‘future’ (Cusack) do not end up as a rounded portrait of a man buoyed by his talent, but craving the approval of a father figure, be it former Beach Boys manager Murry Wilson (Bill Camp), Brian’s actual father or controlling medic Dr Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti without a beard).
You watch the film partly thinking about Michael Jackson, who also moved between two controlling figures and, like Wilson, wasn’t quite there. We first see Brian ‘past’ at the height of his success. But he would rather write songs than tour Japan with the rest of the band. His lyrics are deemed too depressing by his father who wants him to write catchy, bubble gum tunes. Brian ‘future’, whose story is told in parallel, is first seen with his shoes off looking at the inside of a Cadillac. ‘I didn’t want to get sand in it,’ he explains to saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks). He persuades her to sit in the vehicle with him. As one door slams with one sound, the other with a different, slightly muffled noise, we appreciate the work on the effects. Cusack’s Brian is creepy and lost rather than charming and he has a bodyguard watching him. He writes on the back of one of Melinda’s business cards a three world expression of his loneliness, afraid of uttering them aloud.
How controlling is Dr Landy? At one point, when Melinda offers to share her burger with Brian, Landy pulls it from his mouth, and chastises him as if he were a small child. Landy has moved into one of Brian’s houses and has his son watch over his patient. He will only ‘allow’ Melinda to see Brian if she reports back everything that happens; his insistence is practically salacious.
Meanwhile Brian ‘past’ experiments with different sounds. Whilst the Beach Boys’ album ‘Pet Sounds’ flops, the song ‘Good Vibrations’ becomes the band’s biggest hit. During extensive recording sessions, Brian’s obsessive attention to certain sounds, of two cellos for example, drives a rift between himself and the band. At one point, he talks to them in a swimming pool. ‘Come and join me in the deep end,’ he insists. But the rest of the group – like the depiction of them – are too shallow.
The film alternates between two registers: child-like experimentation in the Brian ‘past’ sections and a gothic romance in the Brian ‘future’ scenes. At one point, Dr Landy is one side of the glass in a recording studio, addressing Brian and Melinda on the other. When Melinda engineers Brian’s potential salvation Landy pounds on her office door like a demented monster. Facing her, the violence ceases. Landy needs a screen to shout through to protect him from reproach.
As the swimming pool scene demonstrates, Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner’s screenplay can be too symbolic. Cusack’s Wilson overdoes the paranoia; at times he appears to be clinging to an invisible blanket. He is so much like a child that you wonder how Melinda can have sex with him. She’s right to want to rescue him, but you wonder if she knows who she is saving. As the narratives converge, you can see (not in the Dr Who sense) Dano’s Brian merging into Cusack’s, linked by a desire to retreat into sleep. ‘Is
it true that you spent two years in bed,’ Melinda asks ‘future’ Brian. ‘More like three,’ he replies. The drugs render Brian incapable of free thought. His maid tells Melinda he is being made to sign contracts for Landy. Where is Brian’s family in this? They appear not to interfere. The makers are cagey to suggest what role they might have had in Brian’s medical supervision. Brian’s father gets revenge for being fired as Beach Boys manager, but in the film only Brian gets really distressed by it. With the sensitivities of the living to contend with, Love and Mercy, is another biopic that treads carefully around its subject, like last year’s James Brown biopic, Get On Up. The music can be relied upon to entertain but the depiction of the creative process suggests that there is only one person in the room who cares about the music. We know that in most bands, that isn’t true.
If the Michael Jackson parallels stay with you for much of the film’s length, Love and Mercy offers a happier ending. I wanted a more complete portrayal of a man coping with mental illness. Love and Mercy has terrific cinematography, period detail and songs, but doesn’t go much below the surface.