Tuesday, June 9

REVIEW: Love and Mercy

Directed by Bill Pohlad
2015 Musical Biography
2 hours and 1 minute
From Roadside Attractions

Paul Dano
John Cusack
Elizabeth Banks
Paul Giamatti
Bill Camp
Jake Abel
Kenny Wormald
Graham Rogers
Brett Davern
Diana Maria Riva
Joanna Going

Absolutely brilliant.  This is, by far, the best movie I have seen in ages.  If you are fond of musical biographies or biographical films in general, the iconic Beach Boys, movies that are exquisitely well-acted, indie films that rock and put egg on the greedy faces of the big Hollywood studios, this is the one for you.  Call in sick from work, pedal to the metal and get to your closest art house fast.  You won't be sorry.

This is the story of the mental decline of Brian Wilson, the leader of the Beach Boys.  It is a thoughtful journey for us, never sensationalized or tacky.  At its core, it tells a very simple, straight-forward story.  (Given particularly that it's a story of famous musicians, it's surprisingly sparse on drug use and F-bombs.)  It is also an impressive glimpse into the frightening world of mental illness and a hopeful one on working through it.

A very large part of the story is Wilson's reprobate shrink, one of the most despicable villains to come along in some time and not out of Marvel or other such silliness.  An even larger part concerns a loving yet spunky woman who comes to love and save him.

One of the best things about the film is that Wilson, who is still alive, is portrayed by two main actors.  Paul Dano plays him in his early adult years and John Cusack as the older man.  Sometimes this doesn't work so well in films and although I have a small criticism, it works quite effectively here.  The story alternates throughout on featuring the two actors and their parts of Wilson's life and does so quite successfully.

Through the Dano passages we see, of course, his early life with his abusive father and the start of the Beach Boys, which included two of his brothers, and the onset of his problems.  They included not only mental illness but drugs, an early but lengthy marriage and the eruption in the Beach Boys brand because Wilson wanted to write a different kind of music.  When all agreed that he could forgo a tour to Japan and stay home and write, things came apart for him.

There are numerous scenes depicting his collapse but I was most impressed with a dinner table scene involving many others where simple clanging of utensils and bowls and glasses became loud and scary and unbearable for him. 

The Cusack scenes deal with him on the road to slow recovery and the woman who believes he has been imprisoned and kept on drugs to keep him down and quiet and paying.    

There's no point in delving into scene after scene or to involve you in the whole story because it is readily available on the internet.  Wouldn't you rather become involved in it by seeing it?  I must say that while I was aware of Wilson's problems with his psychosis, his father and the Beach Boys, it all seemed brand new to me in watching this electrifying film.

I will add it was fun to watch the recording session sequences.  Getting that sound right.  Arguing.  Sweating.  Laughing.  Picking out the appropriate instruments.   Such an effort was included to put each and every one of us on a stool at the back of the room.  It was that real.

I read an article once on Wilson and Dr. Eugene Landy whose iron-fisted grip on the singer revealed how smelly the flotsam in Malibu and hills of Hollywood could be.  I've read of such relationships before... the one Marilyn Monroe had with her shrink, Dr. Ralph Greenson, was similar and there are others who prey on celebrities who have lost their way.  It's sad, it's disgusting and it's laid out gloriously for you here.

There are two actors named Paul that I have never particularly cared for.  If I have seen their films, it's for other reasons or other actors.  One is named Paul Dano and the other Paul Giamatti.  To know that I chose to see this movie with both of them in it is a testament to my resilience and sense of fair play... trust me.  So let's add this:  Dano, whom I find just too lethargic to be interesting as an actor, truly stepped it up here.  He is so animated and cheerful in the first scenes and so spot on in all he accomplished.  I will never think of him in quite the same way as I did, which is a good thing.

Giamatti, decked out in a brown wig, is seriously mesmerizing as the demonic doctor.  I have never cared for him in leading man roles or in romantic ones, what can I say?  This may be a supporting role but it verges on an actor elbowing others and saying let me in.  His best scenes are with Elizabeth Banks.  Watching the two of them spar is some of the best moments... chilling, really.

One of my two criticisms of the film (but not enough to tarnish those four stars I offered) is that John Cusack doesn't look at all like Wilson.  Dano resembled him a great deal and took the time to gain some needed pounds to play the portly musician.  But Cusack did no such thing nor was there an attempt to get the hair right.  While I did find that a bit odd and even off-putting at first, I must say this is the best thing Cusack has ever done.  Gone are the tics and facial mannerisms, the mouth that hangs open like he's thinking of having a small stroke.  He invests all his energy and know-how into playing a man hanging over the Grand Canyon by his fingernails.

No less grand than the three guys is the glorious Elizabeth Banks.  I have always quite liked her work although not always her films.  She has played a number of snotty roles and we know I am drawn to actresses who do such things.  Here she is not snotty although her strength and spirit as Melinda Ledbetter comes from the same origin.  She is simply more controlled but that lovely face is simmering and stewing as she fights for the broken man she has come to care for.

Come awards time these four names had damned well better be sprinkled among the others.  They were magnificent performances.  They all must have had the best time knowing they were all giving their best.  This was ensemble at its most gloried.

Who is Bill Pohland?  This is only his second directorial effort, the first being a 1990 film called Old Explorers with Jose Ferrer and James Whitmore.  What has he been doing in the meantime?  Producing mostly... including such films as Brokeback Mountain, The Tree of Life, 12 Years a Slave and Into the Wild.  You've heard of them?  Well, Mr. Pohland, Sir, I bow to your terrific feats as a director.  Do keep up the extraordinary work. 

The musical score, of course, was fabulous.  All the Beach Boys songs appear to be here.  One of them was used for the title and I am sorry that it was because I think it's too blah, nothing about it will particularly click for audiences, and that's too bad.  I perhaps could have seen Good Vibrations or maybe Help Me, Rhonda.  Or even Brian's Song... but someone used that before.  Oh I kid the title people.  Sure was a blast hearing all this music again.

Special mention must be given to Dino Jonsater for his superb editing.  What a job that must have been.  One particular piece involved a bed montage.  At one point in his life, Brian Wilson took to his bed for several years.  It is laid out in a fascinating sequence showing Dano, Cusack and then a young actor who plays Wilson in pre-teen years.

It is such a joy to see a fine movie like this and even more of a kick to know it's an independent film.  I am happy to see a half dozen so-so independent ones to then see this kind of wonderful. 

Next posting:
The Directors


  1. 4 stars!!!! Can't wait.

  2. I can't WAIT to see this one with you in 2 weeks! I've heard so many great things about this and your review supports what I've heard. Pet Sounds, Smiley Smile....the soundtracks of my teens! and some fav actors! I am SO looking forward to this one! well worth the trip to the city....

  3. Bob, your excellent write-up has me looking forward to seeing this one. Thank you
    - Sarah's brother

  4. Wow, Andy, thanks for writing. Glad you enjoyed the review but it won't hold a candle to how much you'll like the movie. Don't miss it.

  5. I just watched it today, Cusack was not the best choice for an older Brian for sure, the rest of the cast did an excellent job.