Love and Mercy (Movie) written by Oren Moverman, Michael A. Lerner and Brian Wilson; directed by Bill Pohlad;
starring Paul Dano, John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti, Diana Maria Riva, Jake Abel, Joanna Going, Kenny Wormald,
Brett Davern, Erin Darke, Bill Camp.
You know the formula:
A pop star (insert writer, artist, actor or whoever) rises from humble origins to fame, success
and celebrity. Then begins the precipitous decline of said pop star (or whoever), thanks to drugs, sex and booze (or
whatever). We’re left with the sad, final picture of the ruined life, the detritus of the glamour and glory.
Do we really need that story again?
No, we don’t. But this one is different, even though it has some elements of the oh-so-familiar theme.
For starters, we jump in at the height of the fame. The credits are barely over before the movie has dispensed with the
cheesy popularity of the Beach Boys in the 1960s – the screaming fans, the bikini-clad backup girls, the media frenzy.
Already, trouble is brewing. Brian Wilson (Paul Dano), the lead singer and composer of most of the group’s songs, is
starting to have panic attacks. He’s also hearing voices in his head. Next thing you know, he’s wanting to skip
the group’s tour of Japan so that he can work on some innovative musical ideas. When the group members return to home
turf, they find that the music Brian’s turning out is too experimental, too out-there; it doesn’t fit into the
Beach Boys’ brand. This becomes an on-going conflict within the band.
Along come the drugs. Brian discovers the mind-blowing effects of LSD. We’re left to assume the role played by partying,
booze and sex, because, jumping forward about twenty years, we find Brian (now played by John Cusack) in one hell of a mess.
He’s admitting now that he was never much of a husband or a father to his two daughters. He’s totally under the
control of Dr. Eugene Landy, a psychotherapist, who claims that Brian is a paranoid schizophrenic. The doctor keeps him heavily
medicated and monitors Brian’s daily life down to the minutest details. He even has bodyguards and spies trailing Brian
wherever he goes.
Since this movie is based on the true story of Brian Wilson’s life, you may know how things turn out. However, for
the sake of honouring our principle of not revealing any more plot than necessary here at Dilettante’s Diary,
we’ll leave the narrative there. A quick check on the Internet will show you that this movie has greatly simplified
Brian Wilson’s story. It was a heck of a lot more tumultuous and complicated than what you see here. But that’s
ok. In terms of the general outlines and some of the most important turning points in Brian’s life, the movie’s
true to the actual events. We know that, to make a work of art out of any person’s story, you have to impose a certain
order or coherence that wasn’t there in the living of it.
Having heard a bit about the movie beforehand, I thought there might be a problem in having two actors playing the
part of Brian. When a change of actors is required in order to represent widely separated eras of a character’s life,
the switch usually takes some getting used to on the part of us viewers. Surprisingly, though, it presents no problem at all
in this movie. That’s partly because the movie doesn’t proceed chronologically. From the beginning, we’re
flipping back and forth between the 1960s and the 1980s; it’s not like we have a huge change to adapt to after having
seen the one actor for a long time.
It helps, of course, that the two actors playing Brian – Paul Dano and John Cusack – look a bit alike; they’re
by no means identical, but there’s just enough similarity in the structure of their features that it doesn’t seem
like much of a shock when you switch from one to the other. After all, you find yourself thinking, everybody looks a bit different
over the years, given changes in weight, hair styles and so on.
But the movie accomplishes feats far greater than the adroit handling of that problem about the two actors in one role.
It’s one of those rare movies that takes you to places you’ve never been. (And I’m not talking only about
visits to the recording studio where we get to witness Brian’s extraordinary techniques.) Many scenes make you think:
I’ve never seen anything like this on screen. One scene had such surprising impact that it brought me to unexpected
tears. At a barbeque, Brian was trying to entertain a new lady friend, but the doctor was refusing to let Brian
eat the hamburger he wanted. It was excruciating to see this grown man cowering like a frightened child when the ogre in charge
of him wouldn’t let him assuage his hunger.
Thank goodness that lady friend arrived on the scene to help balance things out. Elizabeth Banks plays Linda Ledbetter,
a beautiful woman Brian met when he was buying a car. Her role in Brian’s life made me think of Shine,
another movie based on a true-life situation where a kind, sensitive woman (Lynn Redgrave) came to the aid of a man afflicted
with mental illness (David Helfgott). Ms Banks plays Melinda as one of those human beings who doesn’t make a big deal
about being a good person, who’s relatively non-assertive about herself but has the guts to take a stand when she sees
something wrong. Maybe that’s because she herself has been through some hard times.
At first, though, I found myself wondering why she liked Brian so much. To my eyes, there wasn’t anything very attractive
about him. He looked pretty much like a pathetic, discombobulated wimp. Was it just that Melinda was fascinated by his stardom,
tarnished though it was? She didn’t seem the kind of person to be inclined towards such superficiality. Eventually (after
seeing the movie), I came to the conclusion that she was responding to Brian the way some people are touched by a frightened
puppy. Underneath the quivering and fear, she saw something sweet and gentle and she wanted to give that a chance to flourish.
My only other problem with the movie – one that never was resolved.– was the role of the doctor. He comes across
as a Machiavellian villain. Why was he treating Brian so harshly? What was the doctor getting out of it (apart from what were,
presumably, substantial fees)? The fact that the role is played by Paul Giamatti, means that there are complexities and subtleties
to a character who might otherwise have come off as a one-note tyrant, but we never really do understand the man. He is simply
the bad guy. Given that the movie is based on real life, as experienced by Brian, I suppose it has to present things as they
appeared to him. It would have made a better drama, though, if the villain could have spoken up for himself, presented his
side of the argument. After all, what makes Paradise Lost so great is the fact that Milton makes Satan such
an intriguing character.