Love & Mercy June 2, 2016
I’ve found that the most successful biopics are not the ones that attempt to capture the lives of their subjects from beginning to end. More frequently victorious are films in which only a fragment of their focal point’s existence is cinematically focused on. Predominant are works, like Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There or Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs, that choose to ignore factuality and conventionality in favor of recreating the quintessence of their respective centers. Much more thrilling to behold is biographical fervidness gnarled up in the confidence of an auteur.
Experimentalism isn’t always lucrative — just look at 2010’s disastrously audacious Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life — but when it works, it works; artistic flair can be the foremost supplement to an already interesting life. So 2015’s Love & Mercy, a riveting portrait of Beach Boys co-founder Brian Wilson, is among the finest of the biopic genre. The unlikely ambition of its screenwriters, Michael Alan Lerner and Oren Moverman, carries it far away from aesthetic predictability, resulting in a sensitive, sometimes potent, portrayal of one of music’s most compelling figures.
It makes the ingenious decision to circle around Wilson during two painful times within his personal life, one profiling the making and aftermath of Pet Sounds (which, creatively prosperous as it was, saw the beginning of Wilson’s battle with schizophrenia), the other centering on his toxic relationship with psychologist Eugene Landy (a phenomenal Paul Giamatti) in the 1980s. In his 1960s incarnation, he is portrayed by a convincingly tortured Paul Dano; his elder version, susceptible and needing of saving, is played by a brilliant John Cusack.
No buffer is ever seen — the film jumps back and forth between these individual versions of Wilson unpredictably and adeptly — and yet Love & Mercy is strikingly cohesive. Wilson, arguably, is more touchable of a figure as a result of the movie’s decision to profile him during his most tumultuous years. All we see are his warts, his shortcomings, and this backward approach makes for captivating entertainment. The contrast between the two periods, the first an entangled mess of tortured genius, the second a terrifying but eventually hopeful spotlighting, propels the film’s recurring flirtations with the harrowing.
The Landy supported half is particularly disturbing, but it also provides the movie with as many haunting flourishes of poignancy as it does well-timed emotional severity. As it is focused upon the late 1980s, a time during which Wilson’s mental illness was supposedly so out of control that it was required that he constantly be supervised by the abusive Landy (whose verbally violent personality is nothing short of appalling), many scenes are additionally frightening due to their being lined in truth.
Wilson was, famously, saved by Melinda Ledbetter (played here by an excellent Elizabeth Banks), a car saleswoman who fell in love with the man and ultimately freed him from the chains of Landy’s manipulations. And this romance is the greatest thing about the film — it’s rare for biopic utilizing a tortured genius for inspiration to conclude happily rather than with downbeatness. Such causes one to wonder what took Hollywood so long to make a movie about Brian Wilson, considering his roller coaster of a life. But it’s also a relief that Pohlad, whose unwonted helming never loses sight of Wilson’s humanity (despite its risk-taking), injects Love & Mercy with fitting idiosyncrasy that keeps it away from biographical film dryness.
Its chancy structure, backed by emotional payoff, gives Love & Mercy a place next to the best films of 2015. Cleverly conceived and masterfully acted, you’ll be pressed to find a biopic as good as this one — if only all manifestations of the genre were so dauntless. B+