Biopics are hard. There, someone had to say it. They need to revolve around someone’s real life – and life isn’t scripted – and all rely on the audience finding this real person interesting enough to give her or him 2 hours (or more) of their time. But they’re also hard because, as a critic, you have to separate your love for the real person from the film presented in front of you. Brian Wilson is 6 star worth on my books. This film, definitely, isn’t.
After a strange intro (that feels like pieces cut and pasted from three different films) we are presented with 60s Brian Wilson (played by Paul Dano) and 80s Brian Wilson (played by John Cusack). 60s Wilson struggles with the first signs of his mental illness and with the incomprehension of the band when he works on their (his?) album “Pet Sounds”, a complete break from their “surfer boys” ethos that would reflect on poor sales (and, obviously, critical acclaim ever since). 80s Wilson just met Melinda (Elizabeth Banks), a car sales agent, and it’s then shown how Wilson was controlled by Disney villain Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti, obviously) “for his own good”. We’re thrown between the two timelines until the end when, instead of a connection between the two, we’re given a metaphysical montage that will have to do, and then Good wins and Cusack’s Wilson is freed from his doctor. Cue to emotional cue with the real Brian Wilson doing a live concert and those final explanatory titles that are the fashion with real stories.
Wouldn’t it be nice if it worked, though? With the amazing soundtrack and the exquisite cinematography work of Robert D. Yeoman (a regular Wes Anderson collaborator), who makes the 80s look present and the 60s look groovy (but not too much), Love & Mercy is an ear and eye candy. Paul Dano gives the strongest performance of the film, and it is him that is present in the best achieved moment of the film: when Wilson is in the studio with musicians creating the layers for Pet Sounds. Everything there works – the combination of music and image, Wilson’s experimental character, the creation process (which is so hard to present without falling into cliches) – director Bill Pohlad nails it all. And maybe that’s why we grieve the rest of the film so much. Characters, from which Landy is the extreme example, are flat (a feat, considering they’re based in real people); both Dano and Cusack give amazing performances, but they don’t relate between themselves, and they seem to be playing completely different people; the only build-up that truly exists – to know how talented Wilson ended up in the hands of Landy – is never answered; the father and wife subplots are thrown in at quiet moments, but never made much with; in sum, maybe the film works better for people that already knew about Wilson’s life, but as an introductory piece, it doesn’t work.
Self-indulgent, and just plain off the mark at points, with the occasional talent glimmer – that’s how Love & Mercy can be described. Ironically, that’s how Wilson was described by many as well – maybe the homage is not that accidental.
Love & Mercy will be in UK cinemas from 10th July 2015