How should a movie dramatize the process of profound harmonic understanding? What if it’s a wide release? In Love & Mercy, a bedridden Brian Wilson struggles mightily with almost becoming the star child from 2001. Or something like that. Bill Pohlad’s biopic culminates in a surreally exalting montage of Wilson at different ages (divvied up between Paul Dano and John Cusack), stuck in bed and seeming at once super fragile and transcendently out of this world.
Well, yes: One thing most of us know about Wilson—here, it’s the first personal thing his future girlfriend asks about during their meet-cute—is that he did spend a lot of time tucked in, on account of psychological problems combined with an ambition to be more than just a Beach Boy. And whatever else we may know, we really can’t complain about the casting here. Dano’s wounded-bird innocence works well in this mythology, as does the affable Cusackitude, even if sharing the role underscores each actor’s way of seeming mostly like himself.
As for the girl, a Cadillac saleswoman in the form of Elizabeth Banks, she’s the sweetest tortured-genius-tolerator (and eventual rescuer) that any sensitive songsmith lad could ever hope for, especially when he’s also got Paul Giamatti (reliably fine) as a micromanaging monster of a therapist. Oh, and of course before the counterproductive shrink, there was the counterproductive father (Bill Camp), also the Beach Boys’ manager and, by many accounts, an abuser. The movie treats these accounts with some discretion, but you know not to like the guy when he can’t appreciate the greatness of “God Only Knows,” shyly pecked out by Brian on a piano, only to be shrugged off by Dad as wishy-washy and dull. Tensions with the rest of the band—Brian’s brothers Carl and Dennis, their cousin Mike Love, and friend Al Jardine—also ensue, but it’s the Dad issues that seem most poignantly irreconcilable.
Written by Oren Moverman (who also wrote the rewardingly diffractive Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There) and Michael A. Lerner, Pohlad’s film is maybe not the most authoritative source on correlations between mental illness and boundary-pushing pop songcraft, nor quite the nonpareil of movie biography generally. But as a digest of a certain era’s sounds and styles, a portrait of an artist as a wounded man and a groovy heart-warmer besides, it works.
In the current context, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to read Love & Mercy as some gentle rebuke to blockbuster-season excess. As the real Wilson sings over its closing credits, “I was sittin’ in a crummy movie with my hand on my chin. Oh, the violence that occurs; seems like we never win.” Not that you need to see this movie to hear him sing that. Like summer, life is short (and feels shorter than it used to). There is something to be said for getting a little fresh air while the getting’s good. But not all the air is fresh. And not all the movies are crummy.