Starring: John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti, Jake Abel
Rated PG-13 for Thematic Elements, Drug Content and Language
For "Love & Mercy," the biopic of The Beach Boys member Brian Wilson, its biggest hurdle isn't its lack of quality, but avoiding getting lost in the summer blitz. "Love & Mercy" has its problems, such as performances that are solid but not standout and a lack of innovative direction, but all in all its a pretty good movie. I don't doubt that this movie was originally designed with the word "Oscar" in mind (biopic of a disturbed genius + mental illness = Oscar gold), but the film doesn't quite make it to a level where it could be a serious contender. Still, for those who are interested, it's worth seeking out.
Like many biopics, "Love & Mercy" divides its focus into two time frames simultaneously: the past and the 1980's. The past, where Brian Wilson is played by Paul Dano, features Brian on the cusp of revolutionary music construction while experiencing the first signs of his mental instability that would lead to numerous breakdowns and a period of seclusion. In terms of quality, they're both on an equal playing field (something often desired but rarely achieved).
The early storyline is set when The Beach Boys are at the top of their game. After having a panic attack on an airplane, Brian (Dano) wants to go home and work on a new album. They are surprised, but they still agree. Brian goes to work on what he hopes to be "the greatest album ever recorded," a far-out album with strange instruments and noises, which is titled "Pet Sounds." When his brothers return, they are alarmed at this, and his growing instability.
The latter storyline shows Brian (Cusack) as a very sick man under the extreme control of his psychiatrist, Dr. Eugene Landy (Giamatti). When buying a Cadillac, he meets (and later dates), the saleswoman, Melinda Ledbetter (Banks). They eventually fall for each other, but Landy exercises extreme control over Brian, and while it's early to say that they love each other, Melinda cares for him enough that she won't stand idly by while Landy makes him sicker and sicker.
About 90% of what is on screen is compelling stuff. It can get a little artsy, but those moments are few (and it's nowhere near as painful as something like "November," "Shame," or anything by Wes Anderson). It's what isn't there that gives the film a negative vibe; in the moment it's great stuff, but looking back I got the sense that there were scenes left on the cutting room floor.
The performances are adequate. Neither John Cusack nor Elizabeth Banks has great range, but they are solid enough for a low-budget biopic like this. They do not, however, have the strength to stand-up to the heavy hitters at Oscartime, if the past is anything to go by. Paul Dano can be a terrific actor when he's not appearing in weirdo, offbeat movies like "Gigantic" (if the trailer and the reviews are anything to go by) and "Ruby Sparks" (for all its problems, Dano managed to hold his own against a force of nature like Daniel Day-Lewis in "There Will Be Blood"). His performance as Brian Past represents him as an actor, not his generic Michael Cera clone that shows up on the indie film circuit. He gives a terrific performance that elevates his scenes, capturing Brian's genius, madness and humanity. Paul Giamatti is the scene-stealer as he is want to do, but there is one scene where he goes over-the-top. Special mention has to go to Jake Abel, who plays Mike, Brian's serious and conservative-minded older brother. He doesn't have a lot of scenes, but he stuck out in my mind long enough to be worth mentioning.
I watched "Schindler's List" again last night, and among many things, I was struck by the skill in which Steven Spielberg told his story. He captured the subtle nuances of his story in such an artful, beautiful way without losing sight of the characters or the story. It was artistic without being ostentatious (note to Steve McQueen: that's how to make an art film). Director Bill Pohlad, making his first film in 24 years, was one of the producers of McQueen's "12 Years a Slave," and has attempted to do the same thing. But he's not as talented as Spielberg, and while there are some arresting sequences, they tread close to showing off. I get that he needs to get us inside Brian's mental state, but there has to be a purpose for everything that he's doing.
I can't imagine a more difficult mental illness to capture on film than schizophrenia. The mental trauma and scattered nature of the disease demand an innovative vision to bring it to the screen. Pohlad lacks the vision of Ron Howard and the script of Akiva Goldsman (the director and writer of "A Beautiful Mind"), but it's still a solid movie. The real question is can it find a leg to stand on as counter-programming to big-budget action movies?