Unless you’re fascinated by watching a talented musician stricken by acute mental illness, Bill Pohlad’s eclectic, unconventional biopic of Brian Wilson, co-founder of the Beach Boys, is rather mundane. Paul Dano plays Wilson as a timid, troubled young California singer-songwriter, a solitary genius, churning out pop teen hits like “Surfin’ USA,” “Fun, Fun, Fun,” “I Get Around” and “Good Vibrations” in the 1960s, and engaging in pharmaceutical experimentation while battling his abusive father/onetime manager, Murry (Bill Camp). Read on…
John Cusack plays Wilson as a despondent, lethargic, over-medicated adult in the 1980s. That’s when he bought a Cadillac from a beautiful blonde ex-model/saleswoman, Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), his wife-to-be. To her chagrin, Melinda discovers that Wilson’s life was, literally, manipulated and controlled by his creepy, tyrannical therapist/legal guardian, Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti).
(FYI: Dr. Landy, a psychologist, was originally hired by Wilson’s first wife, Marilyn. He misdiagnosed Wilson as a paranoid schizophrenic, threatening to institutionalize him if he didn’t cooperate with Landy’s 24-hour treatment; Landy also worked with stars like Alice Cooper and Rod Steiger.)
Studded with heavy-handed metaphors (like Wilson in the deep end of the swimming pool), the narrative jumps back and forth between the two. This diversity is a jarring since, physically, the two actors playing Wilson don’t resemble one another.
That’s not even acknowledged by screenwriter Oren Moverman, who previously worked with director Todd Haynes, splitting Bob Dylan into six different people in “I’m Not There.” Moverman, apparently, revised Michael Alan Lerner’s original script.
The most memorable scenes show Wilson’s artistic process: composing at the piano, musing “Sometimes it scares me to think about where the music comes from. What if I lose it? What if I never get it back? What would I do then?”
Or obsessively working on the kaleidoscopic “Pet Sounds” album (1966) in experimental recording sessions with Wrecking Crew musicians. For avid Wilson fans, that – and the sound track – may be enough.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Love and Mercy” is an uneven, sanitized 6. It’s obvious in the “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” closing credits that this discordant, yet deferential project was made with the complete cooperation of Brian and Melinda Wilson.