For both Paul Dano and John Cusack, Love and Mercy was a chance to collaborate on a character. It's not rare to see two actors play the same person in a film. But Dano and Cusack, who play Brian Wilson in the Bill Pohlad-helmed film, submit exceptionally similar performances. Wilson, the mind behind The Beach Boys, is well-known for retreating from the limelight in the 1980s due to mental health issues and the actors both give him a decidedly fragile edge while maintaining his mysterious genius.
Love and Mercy begins in the partially-deaf right ear of Brian Wilson. The blackness fades and we're in the surf where the Beach Boys pose for the Surfin' Sarafi and Surfer Girl album covers. Success has already come and Brian (Dano), his brothers Dennis (Kenny Wormald) and Carl (Brett Davern), their cousin Mike Love (Jake Abel), and friend Al Jardine (Graham Rogers) are a part of a pop music sensation. Brian is happily married and the band sticks together outside the studio, talking about life and music, but it's Brian who wants to take the next step. It's the end of 1965, The Beatles have just released Rubber Soul, and Wilson wants to produce his own masterpiece. While his bandmates tour Japan, he stays home and dedicates himself to the new Beach Boy album: Pet Sounds.
Flash forward 20 years and we meet Wilson (Cusack) shopping for a new Cadillac. He's strange and aloof, confounding the saleswoman, Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), by taking off his shoes and frustrating his bodyguard and another man who seems to be telling Wilson what to do. This is Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), the experimental therapist trying to bring the artist back to life after years spent in bed (three, to be exact), gaining weight, and killing his voice with a regular diet of cigarettes and God only knows what else. Melinda doesn't recognize Brian, but she's intrigued by him nevertheless. It's their relationship that will truly save him.
Director Bill Pohlad shows a deft hand (along with editor Dino Jonsäter) navigating Wilson's life through the two time periods. Love and Mercy's title credits include the subhead "Based on the life of Brian Wilson" and writers Oren Moverman and Michael Lerner obviously took things to heart. The details are immense and Pohlad obviously put tremendous care into making the film as authentic as possible. From the album cover shoots to the realistic studio space to casting Wilson's longtime audio engineer Mark Linett in a similar role as Chuck Britz, Love and Mercy feels like the real thing.
Dano is downright fantastic as Wilson the younger. He's always eccentric, but grounded firmly in reality before slowly descending into outright paranoia. Where Dano really succeeds is in bringing enthusiasm and a childlike sense of wonder to the recording sessions. The actor (who fronts his own band in real life) sings, plays piano, and experiments with instruments and sounds never used before as Wilson. Pohlad's trick is how he imagines Wilson's experiments to realize the sounds we're all familiar with. The plucking of piano strings, for example, leads to the creation of "Wouldn't it be Nice" and Wilson's complicated arrangements come together in beautiful harmony on "Good Vibrations." Beach Boy fans will ooze off their seats watching these scenes. I did.
Less romantic are the sequences with Cusack and Banks, ironically. Wilson's great love story is about as far from traditional as it gets. Wilson is Landy's prisoner essentially and the therapist tells Melinda she may only see Brian if she checks with him first and then reports everything back to him after. Landy, played to self-righteous perfection by Giamatti (I got flashbacks of his character, Pig Vomit, in Private Parts) is a smarmy douche who's obviously brainwashed Wilson in his weakest moments to believe he has no other options. Landy is one of the more despicable characters you'll see onscreen this year and his presence creates a hero in Melinda. She devotes herself to, not only Brian, but to freeing him from a life he never created.
Cusack, who looks nothing like Wilson, but does capture the fragility of his character, is about as close to a weak point as this film has. He's solid, just not quite as believable as Dano, Giamatti, or Banks. Love and Mercy is truly the result of many moving parts. Pohlad's editorial craftsmanship fuses two films into one and his script subtly probes the genesis of Brian's psychosis (his father is held more than a little responsible by the film). This is a movie that works on a base level of fantastic music, set designs, and costumes. And it also works emotionally. Pohlad allows us to get to know Wilson, his process, his demons, and his love and savior.