As he fires through a third rendition of Good Vibrations’ melody, there is a mixture of anguish, relief and fear on the face of Brian Wilson. It is this versatility that makes Paul Dano and, to a greater extent, Love & Mercy, work. While Pet Sounds does not do all that much for me, I have such a deeply held respect for Wilson. He put his sanity, family and marketability on the line to create something he believed in. What director Bill Pohlad wishes to do here is showcase the shockwaves this caused, both the immediate tensions and the decades-long mental deterioration of a man who, at his peak, was considered a genius of music.
That may be true, and Love & Mercy does a great deal in showing this with a sense of naturalness and also a vivid creativity interlinked with it. Pohlad plays with two roles forming one character. Dano slowly ups the ante in a knockout performance, while John Cusack presents the low point, a man whose musical talent has not so much ebbed away but has receded deep inside of him. It is unmoving. It flows and clogs up the mind like cement. That is the effect LSD had on Wilson, and Dano shows such a change in character and style well.
Wilson is the star of the show, as are Dano and Cusack, but there is stunning work here from Paul Giamatti and Elizabeth Banks. The animosity between the two creates a nice subplot that revolves around Brian but can operate without his appearance. That is one of the many smart decisions Pohlad makes, for although this is a biopic on Brian Wilson, it is integral that we have some time away from the man. We must know how his family and friends felt, for we know he is in a terrible place, but to see the impact such a feeling has on those loved ones makes the emotionally charged scenes all that more potent. Cusack lying in bed with a barrage of voices in his mind, with the camera panning up and back down, the death of his father and that of his dream masterpiece all rolled into a tremendous bit of artistic flair. That is what Love & Mercy is full of, artistic shots to the arm that feed the mind, with all the sloppy soppy scenes dragging that emotional strength down.
There is still something missing within Love & Mercy, and it is frustrating that I have not yet discovered what it is. When it is with Dano, he demands the attention, and rightly so. We suffer when not with him, those brief moments of respite in the recording booth or the panning shot around as he fiddles with the smallest intricacies of the cello sound. That is what Pohlad does so well. It is his saving grace and self-destruction in one. He is so possessed by a faithful adaptation of the story, the building frustrations of the bandmates and the eventual fallout, that he fails to paint a broader picture with the interesting details he uncovers. The recollection of events is muddled and intercut with not quite the right balance, but we must show love and mercy to Love & Mercy, for I doubt we will ever see another Beach Boys biopic.