Love and Mercy Review

Posted: December 16, 2015 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

love and mercyWritten by Daniel “PG Cooper” Simpson

In 2004, a musical biopic of Ray Charles, simply titled Ray, became a huge critical and financial hit, was nominated for Best Picture, and won an Oscar for leading man Jamie Foxx. Looking back, it’s not a particularly strong film, but the impact of it’s success has been felt in the waning years. Musical biopics may have existed previously, but the mid-2000s saw a far greater surge with the likes of Walk the LineDreamgirlsLa Vie en RoseNotorious, and I’m Not There. While some of these films are pretty unique (particularly I’m Not There), these films tend to be formulaic and predictable affairs, to the point that there’s been something of a backlash against them. And yet, two of the summers most well-reviewed films were of said genre. NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton proved to be well-reviewed and enthralling story that also did extremely well at the box-office. A few months before Straight Outta Compton, Beach Boys singer Brian Wilson was also subject of a motion picture; Love and Mercy. While that film did not open to the rapturous audience response, the film was a humble success, making respectable business and achieving very strong reviews.

The film is set in two key periods in Wilson’s life. In the mid-1960s, Brian (played in these sections by Paul Dano) is working on the now revered Pet Sounds album, arguing about artistic decisions with the rest of his band, and dealing with a slowly deteriorating mental health. This material is crosscut with Brian’s life in the 1980s (where he is played by John Cusack). Brian is in a more fragile state, and seems to be being taken advantage of by his therapist, Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). Brian does find some solace in a relationship he forms with a woman named Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks).

If nothing else, Love and Mercy was a learning experience for me. I’m not terribly familiar with the music of The Beach Boys and I knew virtually nothing of Brian’s personal life. As such, a lot of this was pretty knew to me. I was especially interested in Brian’s artistic passions and ambitions. It’s always engaging to watch someone who cares about their work trying to achieve greatness and that material is presented well here. I wouldn’t say the film employs a documentary style in these sections, but director Bill Pohlad’s fly-on-the-wall camera style is reminiscent of what you might see on VH1. This section also benefits greatly from Paul Dano’s performance, who embodies the quiet passion of Wilson very well. I’ve always looked Dano as an actor, but he has tended to be overlooked in ensemble casts like Little Miss Sunshine and 12 Years a Slave, or being totally overshadowed by the gargantuan performance of Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood. Here, Dano really gets a chance to shine and he makes the most of it; his performance is probably the best part of the film.

Unfortunately I did not find the 1980s section of the film to be as effective as the 60s, despite the fact that on paper the story seems more interesting. Brian’s nervous breakdown and his abuse at the hands of his therapist are what makes his story so unique, but their execution feels less authentic then the musical section. This is in part due to the writing of Melinda’s character, who seems far too perfect and selfless. She feels more like a plot device than a fully fleshed out person. Perhaps the greater problem though is John Cusack, who perhaps isn’t the right actor for a role like this. I like Cusack a lot, but he has a lot of small ticks and habits that reoccur through his work and it’s the same here. Consequently, I don’t really see Brian Wilson when I look at him. I also found that Cusack’s performance didn’t really match up with Paul Dano’s work. I get that we’re seeing this guy at two very different points in his life, but he should still feel like the same person at least.

Love and Mercy tells an interesting story, is fairly well-made, and features a great performance from Paul Dano. It is for this reasons that I do recommend the film, at least to an extent. At the same time, the film is a bit too flawed to really celebrate. About half the movie is really flawed and while this doesn’t follow the typical biopic formula, at the same time it doesn’t really leap out at me as anything special.


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