Sean K. Cureton

Schizophrenic, Genius & Madness

In Movie Reviews: 2015 on June 13, 2015 at 11:40 am
Theatrical Poster

Theatrical Poster

Love & Mercy
Directed by Bill Pohlad
3 out of 4 stars

In adapting the fractured life and mind of The Beach Boys’ front man and solo artist Brian Wilson, Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy often struggles to stay on the right track narrative track, the film’s many subjective detours and digressions each individually fascinating in their own right, even if they don’t all lead to the same cathartic destination. Thankfully, the film does cohere, more or less, into a feature film that supports its own more clearly defined legal drama, even if the melodramatics of that particular narrative arc is only half of the film’s dramatic focus, and the less developed one at that. In Pohlad’s bio-pic, screenwriters Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner explore the life and works of American pop musician Brian Wilson through two different versions of his character, the first being the young, budding musician who single handedly composed and recorded much of The Beach Boys eleventh studio album, Pet Sounds, before succumbing to mental illness and self-imposed isolation. The second comes in the form of a much older Wilson living in the 1980’s, a time when the real life musician was placed under court ordered 24-hour surveillance under his former therapist, Dr. Eugene Landy. The way in which the viewer is allowed to follow the path of an older Wilson struggling to come to terms with his mental illness, alongside longer, more aesthetically nuanced depictions of the recording sessions for Pet Sounds in the late 1960’s is masterfully accomplished, the juxtapositions between the two narrative arcs and characters at first glance entirely disparate, before the cohere into one man, the final depiction of Brian Wilson depicted in the film by Pohlad one equally informed by the artist’s genius and his inherent madness, the difference between the two tenuous at best.

Over the course of the half of the film that depicts and documents Wilson amidst creative fruition in the 1960’s, the young man is portrayed by actor Paul Dano, who lends a certain off-beat charm to the proceedings, which helps to offset some Wilson’s more extravagant eccentricities from becoming entirely unattractive. Starting in the film’s opening scene, in which Wilson is depicted late at night, positing the question to himself of what he would do if his genius and inspiration were to ever leave him, Dano is allowed the space to evoke a quiet, human fragility that we the audience already know will prove too timid to survive the aggression of his father, his family, and the realities of his own mental instability. In the glimpses offered of Wilson recording his magnum opus in the studio, sound designer Eugene Gearty emotively captures the layered textures of the original Beach Boys LP beautifully, the sounds which we hear in the studio simultaneously gorgeous and subjectively threatening, as they gradually begin to haunt Wilson’s unconscious with a malicious tenacity that proves aurally dissonant for the viewer. As the line between artistic inspiration and singular madness begins to blur for the young Brian Wilson, glimpses of a much older Wilson in the 1980’s, played by John Cusack, begin to intrude upon Dano’s performance, informing how the viewer sees Dano as Wilson, and vice versa, as the film tracks the trajectory of the fallout of the 1960’s visited upon Cusack’s portrayal of the same man in the 1980’s. In Pohlad’s film, Brian Wilson is neither the young artisit he once was, nor the older man living a beleaguered existence in the 1980’s, but an amalgamation of the two, the image that the viewer assembles from the film’s two distinct portrayals of the same character as important in capturing the essence of Brian Wilson as anything that the film is ever able to objectively quantify.

Over the course of the second half of the film, that in which John Cusack plays Brian Wilson under 24-hour surveillance in the 1980’s, Pohlad’s talent as a melodramatic storyteller come into play, the legal battle staged between Wilson’s former therapist and legal guardian, Dr. Eugene Landy, and his intended second wife, Melinda Ledbetter, one that is more immediately familiar to anyone who has watched even a single episode of Law & Order or CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Compared to the aesthetic mimicry of Wilson’s work and ethos on display in the film’s better half, Cusack’s estimable portrayal of a wounded older man is overshadowed by the film’s lazier machinations of a narrative perhaps better suited to an entire different film altogether. In the film’s depiction of Wilson’s struggles in the 1980’s, Elizabeth Banks portrays Wilson’s second wife Melinda Ledbetter with a ferocious energy and feminist mystique that is admirably achieved, but which distracts the film from its subjective focus entirely. In the scenes held between Banks and Dr. Eugene Landy, played a little too broadly by an otherwise welcome performance from Paul Giamatti, Cusack takes a back seat to a narrative that feels better suited to day time TV, Cusack’s performance more often than not encroached upon by a soap opera that comes inexplicably out of left field. While Cusack shines in the role of Brian Wilson, the light of his performance is muted by his supporting actors, Banks seemingly auditioning for a Melinda Ledbetter bio-pic of her own, and Giamatti chewing the otherwise clearly established scenery to bits with his own feral menace and intractable charisma.

In Bill Pohlad’s attempt at constructing a bio-pic featuring the life of The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, Love & Mercy succeeds in its evocation of the beauty of the mind of the artist, but struggles to overcome some of its more discordantly applied dramatic tropes. Paul Dano is an immensely empathetic object for our sympathies to attach themselves to, his portrayal of Wilson’s early genius turned to madness echoed in Cusack’s more subdued performance as an older, wiser artist in constant competition with the aforementioned capacity of his former self. However, the film often becomes distracted with its subsidiary characters, who are played so well by the film’s supporting cast that watching the film becomes an exercise in combating and deciphering narrative misdirection. Pohlad has an obvious aesthetic understanding and appreciation for the music of Brian Wilson, but what remains unclear in Love & Mercy is just what Pohlad wants to say about that affinity for his subject, the film at times flirting with intimate character study, but more often than not falling back on the sorts of narrative contrivance and cliché previously discussed at length. For better or worse, Love & Mercy is a somewhat schizophrenic study of a man with well documented mental deficiencies, the film’s dramaturgy effective in its ability to evoke intense sympathy and understanding in the viewer for Wilson’s plight across the span of twenty years, which is perhaps more than can be asked for, or expected, from the film’s established genre, which is pretty good, considering the alternatives.

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