Love and Mercy – 2015

Director Bill Pohlad
Starring John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti
Screenplay Michael Alen Lerner, Oren Moverman

I was sittin’ in a crummy movie with my hands on my chin
Oh the violence that occurs seems like we never win

There is nothing like going into the cool atmosphere of a movie theater on a hot California day. Sitting in the 3rd row of tiny Room 2 of the Minor Theater in Arcata, I was accompanied by 3 other random men, all older than I and looking somewhat more haggard. Even so, there was a definite kinship between us in our random seats. We all were there for a reason.

Love and mercy that’s what you need tonight
So, love and mercy to you and your friends tonight

As the opening credits roll and the heat of the day dissipates, we see a young Wilson (Dano) in a moment of creative crisis. Its taking place during the Smile era. He is at the pinnacle of his creative power and he is quickly running out of whatever it is that keeps someone of his fragile genius together. The screen goes dark.

I was lyin’ in my room and the news came on T.V.
A lotta people out there hurtin’ and it really scares me

Next moment we have Wilson (now played by Cusack) in the early ’80’s at a Cadillac dealership. He looks haggard and worn, and skittish as hell. His interaction with sales agent Melinda Ledbetter (Banks) are fraught with obvious fear, but also laden with a strange, burgeoning affection. There is a man waiting for Wilson to complete his transaction, and it is obvious that his anxious feelings are tied to who he represents. That person is none other than Eugene Landy (Giamatti). Landy is Wilson’s therapist, keeping close tabs on him and controlling every facet of his life. He leaves her with a request to see her again, a purchase of a Cadillac and a note that says: lonely, frightened, scared.

Love and mercy that’s what you need tonight
So, love and mercy to you and your friends tonight

There have been so many depictions and documentaries of Brian Wilson’s life, its easy for one to mingle all of them into one giant ball of woe and top 40 hits. There is more to him than that, of course, and Love and Mercy shows two important facets to the story with the high points and low points. There is little in between.

I was standin’ in a bar and watchin’ all the people there
Oh the lonliness in this world well it’s just not fair

It might be a tough sell to garner some sympathy for a guy who made so much money that he was allowed the (mis)fortune of laying in bed through much of the me decade half out of his mind on drugs. We don’t get to see more than glimpses of this phase, as if there were anything more to see than the skit he did with Belushi and Aykroyd. Still, I have always wondered if there was anything more to that period.


What we do get from Pohlad is a well acted and poignant vantage of Wilson at his most vulnerable. The first phase is during the time of the Beach Boys high point. Just before embarking on a worldwide tour, Wilson has a breakdown and he uses the event as a catalyst to have Bruce Johnston join in his stead as a touring member. Brian’s plan is to stay home and create. And man does he ever create. The music he creates, the basis for The Pet Sounds album, is a source of amazement for the professional musicians that he uses to create. Not everyone is a fan, though. Wilson’s father, Murray, just fired as their manager, thinks God Only Knows is a depressing suicide note. Mike Love, the de facto touring leader, fails to understand the music at all, and resents the idea that none of the band members actually play on the album at all. The album’s relative lack of financial success appears to confirm Love’s myopic wisdom, even though the work is considered a classic. The work continues on a follow-up, but the seeds of undoing are set for Wilson.

Hey love and mercy that’s what you need tonight
So, love and mercy to you and your friends tonight

Forward to the 80’s, Wilson and Ledbetter begin a courtship imperiled as much as it is romantic. The two have a not so obvious chemistry, but she is kind and of all things, that makes her a perfect match for him. Landy’s unconventional methods involve heavy doses of suppressants that make Wilson look gaunt and wasted half of the time. Landy comes across as ultimately a controlling, talentless asshole, much like his father. His ability to push Wilson is at times helpful, but overall he is, like Love and Murray, more of anchor dragging Wilson down, for a quest for his own personal glory.

Love and mercy that’s what you need tonight
Love and mercy tonight

The story goes to great lengths to present Melinda in the best light, and Bank’s performance really helps in this effort. The story portrays her efforts at contacting Wilson’s family in concurrence with her attempts to figure out the extent of Landy’s hold on him. It’s obvious that Wilson not seeing his family in over two years is not a good thing. Landy appears to have a ll of the cards, until Melinda gets through to the housekeeper and ultimately helps him win his freedom.

Love and mercy

The dual portrayals of Wilson produce a chilling effect. I have not once enjoyed a Paul Dano performance until now. His presentation is spot on. The character of a young, talented and loopy Wilson really fits in his wheelhouse. One would hope that the job he does merits attention when it comes to award season. While the same cannot be said for Cusack, he does offer enough value to the role to offset the awkward feelings for those not familiar with the Bob Dylan biopic a few years ago. Overall, it is one of Cusack’s best efforts and an absolute revelation when compared to the work he’s done since 2000. Both actors give one a sense of a fragile but kind person. The talent is one thing, but he is kind with no filter to protect his fragile heart. It’s not that he was not loved. The depth of his feelings and his illness were not understood.  Banks gives the best performance of her career. Even if some of her actions in the film are in dispute, her Melinda is humble and not without flaws. Moreover, she is totally a single woman of her time, nearing the point where her best days are behind her. Giamatti does what he does best, creepy, earnest and filled with a rage that can only be found when trying to avoid being found out as a fraud. As a group, Pohlad is generous with his portrayals of the band, even Love. For the first time, even in documentaries, they do not come across as caricatures who think that early Beatles movies were the only example of how to present yourself for public consumption. Longtime fans can at least be satisfied with this, if by some miracle nothing else does this for them.

I was praying to a God who just doesn’t seem to hear
Oh the blessings we need the most are what we all fear

Wilson’s life has been a blessed one, it’s plain to those who have noticed. While not without trials, and a constant challenge of maintaining sanity and sobriety, Wilson has felt the warmth of the sun for some time. That the makers of the biopic should choose Love and Mercy as the title to their enterprise is not by accident. Many consider this a minor song in his catalogue, but it is not. The tenderness and simplicity of the song are on full display here, and they manage to make one realize that if it’s not just the genius that so many people appreciate about him. It’s his kindness and his simple message that love should rule the day. Questions of historical accuracy aside, they nail this basic truth.

(**** out of *****)

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