' Cinema Romantico: Love & Mercy

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Love & Mercy

There’s a shot in Bill Pohlad’s “Love & Mercy” that finds middle-aged Brian Wilson (John Cusack) seated in a restaurant booth with Miranda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), his future wife. The camera gradually slides in behind Wilson’s head but the booth’s set-up, small mirrors embedded in its wooden back, allow us to see the character’s face in reflection, the echoes of who Brian Wilson was and what he accomplished watching over him, whether he knows it or not, a past from which he cannot escape. That, however, is precisely why Miranda becomes the most vital person in his existence. As the shot is set, she sees him not through that reflection, like we do, but straight on, seeing him for who he is in that exact moment and nothing else. That, “Love & Mercy” reckons, is the quality Wilson needed most in his life to expunge the demons that for so long held sway, and those demons and their release is what “Love & Mercy” recounts.


Pohlad’s film succeeds where so many biopics have failed by not telling the story of the Beach Boys’ visionary linearly, by graduating from child actor to main actor to main actor in old-person makeup, but by blending two critical eras of Wilson’s life. It skips back and forth and time, though it’s not really Past & Present; it’s one united chunk of time because each period comes across wholly integral to the other, as if these two versions of Wilson are communicating across the years. Cusack’s performance, in fact, piggybacks gracefully on the performance of Paul Dano, both ably evincing a childlike wonder that is sullied by psychological distress and an overwhelming yearning to be loved.

In the mid-60’s, Wilson conceives and records his masterpiece, “Pet Sounds”, and there is something more beatific to these artistically creative scenes than movies of this ilk usually contain. Pohlad isn’t consumed with tying each innovation to some real world circumstance. You know, like June Carter tells Johnny Cash he can’t “walk no line” and, well, you know what song is being cut in the studio next. Rather “Pet Sounds” seems as spontaneous as thought out, a “mistake” by the pianist turning out to be something transformative, a joyful accident, and you feel that joy emanating from both the songs and from Wilson himself. Yet, you just as aptly sense the encroaching melancholy. Though the film is often too set on showing each mental disconnect immediately in the wake of some crisis, be it familial, personal or professional, as if a person simply can’t be this way despite emotional baggage, it nonetheless deftly employs sound as a means to convey his brewing crack-up. Beach Boy songs are often faintly heard, like ambient noise that may or may not actually be present, impressing themselves upon Wilson’s psyche, for good or for bad. What he has wrought undoes him.


Brian sits out from touring to record, more or less making the recording studio his home where he dreams up sonic soundscapes that his more formal-minded bandmates struggle to grasp while his father hovers with disapproving barbs forever looming on the tip of his tongue. In this context, the recording studio very much arises as his sanctuary, the place where he can convert the escalating voices in his head into something beautiful, where people – like The Wrecking Crew – offer him acceptance. In the mid-80’s, however, where the film’s parallel narrative takes place, Brian has lost that sanctuary. Now his room is an otherwise spectacular beachfront home is like a prison, and its warden is his self-installed protective guardian, a therapist fancying himself a psychologist, Eugene Landy.

Played by Paul Giamatti with a wig so bad its part of the joke that is the character, this is one of the instances in which “Love & Mercy” can’t quite transcend its genre stipulations. He’s pure evil, and maybe he was, but in this context the character lacks any sort of dimension. The film never quite adequately connects the idea that Landy was merely Wilson’s mental replication of his own father; rather Landy simply exists as the jowly monster from whose clutches Wilson must flee. Still, in its own way, this simultaneously betrays the impressiveness of “Love & Mercy”, showing just how rarely it needs to make marks on its Biopic Blemish Bingo Card.

Banks’ Miranda, in fact, at first suggests another archetype, the tortured artist’s savior, the woman who redeems our wounded protagonist with love, the yin to Landy’s yang. It’s not love she exudes, however, as much as selflessness, a steady shoulder to lean on in a universe that for Brian Wilson seems a dominion over-populated with conniving hangers-on and people for whom his prodigious brilliance is somehow still never enough. She embraces him, flaws and all, none of which have necessarily been “cured” by the film’s conclusion. It's why the last sequence, though perhaps contrived, is nevertheless an exquisite capper, an emblematic acknowledgement that the scars of his past psychologically linger. You deal the best you can and put one foot forward.

1 comment:

Thomas Watson said...

John Cusack should have worn a fat suit. Wilson was almost 300 lbs at one point while living in his room.