Berlinale: Love & Mercy

Directed by Bill Pohlad
Starring Paul Dano, John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks and Paul Giamatti

by Joanna Orland

Love & Mercy is a portrait, not a biopic, of The Beach Boys auteur Brian Wilson. Choosing to cast his film anthologically rather than logically, director Bill Pohlad has decided on very different actors to play Brian, representing different times in the musician’s life. The original intention was to do an anthology in three parts with one actor playing “present” day Brian as he spends nearly three years in bed, crippled by depression. Another actor was to play “past” Brian as he struggles with his genius to create something as innovative and legendary as the album Pet Sounds. The third Brian was to be played by yet another actor representing “future” Brian as he meets his current wife Melinda who saves him from Dr. Landy, a selfish and manipulative man who holds Brian emotionally hostage. The casting choices were to be reminiscent of the Bob Dylan film I’m Not There, with completely different actors playing these roles, representing Brian’s character during this period, rather than resembling an actual likeness to the artist.

In Love & Mercy in its final state, only two of these story threads are followed – “past” Brian and “future” Brian. The anthological approach to casting the role is still in play and detrimental to the enjoyment of this film. Patterns only work in threes – the third of a series is what defines the pattern. With only two Brians, and one radical casting choice, the anthology idea is lost and one Brian is left to feel miscast in the role. This miscast comes in the form of John Cusack, who is excellent as the character of “future” Brian, but completely unconvincing playing next to the genius performance of the younger Paul Dano as “past” Brian, who emanates the spirit of Brian Wilson better than Brian Wilson himself.

While the “future” thread of the story feels like a separate movie, one less worth watching, the “past” thread is a revelation. If “past” Brian were the sole focus of this movie, it would be a five star masterpiece. Paul Dano has finally arrived with this role. While acting since a young age, he’s often had smaller roles in big films, or bigger roles in small films. The role of Brian Wilson is finally his time to shine in a high profile piece worthy of his talents.  The “past” thread follows Brian Wilson’s journey as he creates his masterpiece album Pet Sounds. Shot partly in a documentary style, the film uses actual Beach Boys music, combined with Paul Dano’s singing voice, and intertwined with audio footage that was actually recorded in the original studio sessions. This audio soundtrack is seamless and completely affirms the film’s authenticity and immersion, giving the audience the feeling of being a fly on the wall during the recording of Pet Sounds and Brian’s descent into madness.  Kudos to composer Atticus Ross for intertwining his score with The Beach Boys music in a faultless manner.

I literally could have watched the Paul Dano story of Brian Wilson all day. Sadly, this amazing performance, directorial style and innovative soundscape was repeatedly intercut with “future” Brian as John Cusack tries to escape emotional captivity from Dr. Landy (Giamatti) with the help of his newfound love Melinda (Banks). This aspect of the movie makes a fine love story with an emotional dark side, but compared to the Dano story and performance, this feels more suited to be its own romantic spinoff, not fit for the telling of this Brian Wilson story.

I know the director wants to have created a portrait of Brian rather than a biopic, but nonetheless, a strong focus on the Pet Sounds years would have been a much more solid and respectable approach to this film. Brian Wilson the later years could have been a sequel in its own right, giving “future” Brian a chance to shine. As it stands, the two strands feel completely disconnected. It’s not just the actors’ looks that are disparate, but their approach to the character of Brian couldn’t be any more contrasting.

In spite of this disconnect, this film is a must see as Paul Dano gives the performance of his career, bringing the youthful genius of Brian Wilson back to life for the big screen.

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