Director Bill Pohlad gives Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson’s tragic/heroic life a heavy-handed, although occasionally artful, treatment in this biopic. (Water appears in almost every scene, symbolizing escape and refuge.)
Love & Mercy toggles between Brian’s mid-1960s genius spurt, conceiving songs for the iconic rock masterpiece Pet Sounds and the long-delayed cult opus Smile, plus battling demons (abusive father, stodgy bandmates, excessive drug use), and Wilson’s later torment under psychotherapist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) and salvation with second wife, Cadillac dealer Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks).
Love & Mercy is geared for both Beach Boys obsessives and casual fans, although the former may find fault with depictions of the non-Brian members, who come off as ciphers—except for Mike Love, whose uptight, don’t-deviate-from-the-winning-formula mind-set seems spot-on. The former camp should tingle to Brian’s studio interactions with the Wrecking Crew band, but both should revel in the film’s song selection.
While young Brian is played with a stunned wonderment by doughy look-alike Paul Dano, mid-’80s Brian is portrayed by John Cusack—depicted two years after brother Dennis drowned—who looks little like Brian, but who captures the beleaguered, childlike angst of the great songwriter’s overmedicated, stupefied years. Extra credit to the toupéed Giamatti, whose batshit, control-freaky guru Landy will creep out your every atom.