Overview: The life of Beach Boys frontman Brian Wilson is explored in two intertwining plot-lines, covering his musical breakthroughs in the ’60s and his mental breakdown at the hands of a greedy psychiatrist in the ’80s. Roadside Attractions; 2015; Rated PG-13; 120 Minutes.
Wasn’t Made for These Times: The biopic is one of Hollywood’s more gratuitously recycled molds, kept alive by the eternal willingness of audiences to watch an actor they like play a person they like. Love and Mercy gives Brian Wilson fans a double-dose of the formula, depicting the former Beach Boy as a younger man (Paul Dano) and an older man (John Cusack) and cutting back and forth between two separate narratives. This specific kind of non-linear structure makes Love and Mercy a mild standout in its genre; flashbacks and flash-forwards are nothing new for biopics, but this film is telling two distinct stories side-by-side rather than just having brief segments with Old Brian Wilson as a framing device for the meat of the movie in flashbacks to Young Brian Wilson. The problem is that — against all odds — these narratives feel totally incongruous with one another. Little insight into either one of them is offered by its juxtaposition with the other, making Love and Mercy a frustratingly unfulfilling film. For a while, anyway — it climaxes in a bizarre homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey that finally coheres the two timelines in a thrillingly feverish manner, but it’s too little too late. Given that Wilson is lauded for his experimental tendencies, it’s a shame that a film about his life spends so much of its runtime doing just the opposite.
Sounds, Pets and Otherwise: That’s more true about one half of Love and Mercy than the other, though. The Young Wilson story is bog-standard “tortured genius artist” material, replete with wink-wink references to pander to fans and characters whose sole purpose is to tell Wilson either that he’ll never be a great musician or that he’s destined to be one. Dano does his damnedest, but laziness does this half in. The only thing that salvages it is some impressive sound design, which does a great job capturing Wilson’s auditory hallucinations and showing his artistic process without being too overbearing.
Wouldn’t It Be Nice: The Old Wilson story with Cusack, on the other hand, is actually more about Wilson’s second wife, played by Elisabeth Banks. At this point in his life, Wilson is under the thumb of a psychiatrist played by Paul Giamatti whose fascistic therapy doctrine has left Wilson a twitchy wreck. It’s this half that takes Love and Mercy into interesting territory, making Wilson himself secondary to another character in a movie that’s ostensibly about his life. Could this material sustain a full-length feature? It’s debatable — admittedly, the Old Wilson stuff benefits from the context of the Young Wilson stuff — but the movie’s decision to give equal weight to both threads is its undoing. In any case, a more daring approach to the material here may have made for a biopic worthy of Wilson.
Wrap-Up: Love and Mercy is a disappointingly conventional tribute to an icon for experimental pop-art, though the Elisabeth Banks plotline and its surreal climax offer glimpses of a much better film.