Published Sep 12, 2014A young Brian Wilson sits in a room muttering something about music and chords. At first, it looks as if he might be talking to the camera or perhaps someone behind it, but it slowly becomes clear that he's passionately conversing with himself and is absolutely lost in his own little world. Then in an instant, he's drowned out by a cacophony of sounds and voices and melodies on the soundtrack and we're transported to the halcyon days of his success with the Beach Boys.
This is how Bill Pohlad's biopic Love & Mercy begins, a film that goes on to explore Wilson's musical genius and his history of mental illness through two formative periods in his life. It's an uneven effort that comes to life when depicting the making of Pet Sounds but falters in the love story of an older Wilson falling for a car sales associate and eventually being saved by her from a descent into total madness.
Paul Dano's especially effective as the singer in his early years, where Brian discusses with his brothers and cousin in the group his affection for the Beatles' new album, Rubber Soul, and his decision to stay behind from a tour in Japan so he can begin work on their next record. There's a scene in which Brian plays a rough version of "God Only Knows" on the piano for his abusive father, who has recently been fired as the group's manager, and his initial verdict is that it might be something with the right arrangement before changing his mind to declare it to be utterly worthless. Of course, Mike Love doesn't think much of the new tunes, either.
The narrative shifts back and forth between this period and John Cusack's portrayal during a time when Brian's treated by the dubious Dr. Landy (Paul Giamatti). It's then that he's sold a car by Melinda (Elizabeth Banks), who doesn't recognize him as anything but peculiar at first, but soon finds herself dating Brian. Or, seeing as much of him as Dr. Landy will allow, that is.
There's great energy and detail in the unusual manner in which Dano's Brian conducts a group of session musicians through songs like "Wouldn't It Be Nice," just as it's painful to later watch an unraveling Brian shut down an expensive recording session for Smile because the vibrations in the room don't feel right. But the love story, though earnest and sincere, doesn't work; Banks has nothing more to play than infatuation and Giamatti pops out of the shadows occasionally as if he's some sort of horror movie monster.
It's at least a unique entry in a saturated genre, but Love & Mercy's two disparate halves can't coalesce into a cohesive whole that paints a thorough picture of the man. (River Road Entertainment / Battle Mountain Films)