June 22, 2015 by Devin
Love & Mercy falls into that weird category of impressive films that somehow still fail to be thematically relevant on a scale outside of itself. There are a few impressive acting performances showcased in this film, and the fact that the film managed to weave together two separate periods of a person’s life with completely different actors in each era and still feel like a cohesive whole is, again, impressive, but the film feels like less than the sum of its parts.
In Love & Mercy, we follow Brian Wilson, famous member of the Beach Boys, in two eras of his life: the 60s, shortly before and after the album, Pet Sounds, and the 80s when Wilson struggled to reclaim his life after a decade of psychological troubles. During the 60s, Brian Wilson is played by Paul Dano from Little Miss Sunshine and There Will Be Blood fame, while during the 80s, Wilson is played by John Cusack from those romantic comedies that always seem to show up on TBS.
Dano and Cusack both play Wilson as a troubled genius, but Dano undoubtedly gets more interesting material to work with. Seeing him excited about music and the different sounds he can put into a track gives the film a lot of energy, but when the film switches to the 80s, it moves into a quieter mood. Thematically, this is understandable as the music was literally gone from Wilson’s life, but the movie feels loss without the music tying it together. Sequences that feel like they should be full of life turn empty. Wilson’s descent into psychological troubles is a tragedy both in terms of the story and in terms of the movie, as there really are no times that the movie is quite as lively or entertaining as Dano putting bobby pins onto piano strings or playing with dogs.
Love & Mercy does feature great performances from two unexpected sources, though. Paul Giamatti, who can so easily be such an affable character, takes on a wonderful villain role here, slowly but surely descending into a controlling force on Wilson with wonderful gusto. He is lively without being cartoonish, threatening without being dour.
But the standout performance in Love & Mercy comes from Elizabeth Banks. While this movie is a biopic about Wilson, the real star of the 80s era is her as Melinda Ledbetter, Wilson’s eventual second wife. While Cusack is playing Wilson as someone who can barely get out of bed, Banks is the one researching and probing and finding out who Brian Wilson really is, giving the audience someone to not only root for but also get invested in. Giamattia and Banks play off each other so well that Cusack’s subdued performance falls into the background. There is a scene near the end that is positively electrifying in simply the way Banks and Giamatti look at each other. Make no mistake: Melinda Ledbetter is the real hero of this film.
But even with Banks’ excellent performance, the film struggles at keeping the audience’s interest, especially during the latter half of the film when conflicts start to repeat. Wilson and his brothers fight about the music, then everyone becomes okay, and then they fight again. While much of that may simply be due to the limits of making a work based off of a real life story, it is the job of a film to turn those real life events into a narrative that comes together and conveys a compelling message, and Love & Mercy only partially succeeds at this.
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