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Saturday, June 6, 2015


Paul Dano in LOVE & MERCY
Photo by Francois Duhamel
2015, 120 minutes
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, drug content and language

Review by Joshua Handler

Bill Pohlad's loving and intense Love & Mercy is as unique as its subject, Brian Wilson (of The Beach Boys). Telling Wilson's story in two different time periods, the 1960s when he was creating his seminal Pet Sounds and the 1980s when he was severely mentally ill and abused by Dr. Eugene Landy, Pohlad accomplishes a rare feat: he created a well-balanced, unconventional biopic where both stories are equally compelling. Paul Dano is the younger Wilson, whereas John Cusack (in the strongest performance of his career) is the older Wilson. 

The 1960s storyline is largely shot like a documentary. Robert Yeoman's (The Grand Budapest Hotel) vibrant cinematography brings a sense of realism nearly unmatched in other dramas that have employed this technique. Yeoman focuses on small details during the recording sessions that make the period come to life. The production design by Keith P. Cunningham is also a stunning accomplishment and the sound design immerses the viewer in Wilson's inner world. Paul Dano's performance is as outwardly intense and tortured as anything he's ever done, yet it's also very sympathetic. Viewing Dano's portrayal of Wilson next to Cusack's is fascinating since both are highly successful yet entirely different. 

The 1980s storyline is a heartbreaker thanks to John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks, and Paul Giamatti's performances. As the ill Wilson, Cusack is like an injured puppy left in the rain: pathetic, helpless, and yearning for love. At one point, Wilson tells Melinda to leave his house but begs her to not actually leave (him). This is a moment of extreme vulnerability that's wrenching and convincingly performed by Cusack. Cusack's portrayal of mental illness is subtle and internal. It's a performance of grace that matches well with Banks' external energy and power. Melinda is the pillar in Wilson's life keeping him from slipping into complete isolation and Banks' loving performance completely captures Melinda's essence. It's quite possibly Banks's finest hour in a career full of brilliant performances. Finally, Giamatti is deliciously twisted as Landy. One of the finest actors working today, Giamatti always commits fully (even in something as knowingly ridiculous as San Andreas) and this is no exception. This performance easily could have been overplayed, but Giamatti strikes a good balance and creates one of the most terrifying characters to cross movie screens this year. 

In many ways, Love & Mercy is a fairly conventional biopic in that it hits some of the usual story beats, but at the same time, it's unlike any other biopic because of how unsentimental and detailed it is. Love & Mercy doesn't feel like a greatest hits movie, hitting the key moments in Wilson's life that everyone expects to see because it chooses to focus on the smaller, more intimate moments shared between its characters. 

Overall, Love & Mercy is a near-brilliant piece of filmmaking that does just about everything right. It would've been nice to have the ending feel more cathartic than it does, but that's a small quibble about a movie that does so much right. This is Pohlad's directorial debut after a successful career as a producer (he produced 12 Years a Slave, Wild, The Tree of Life), and if this is any indication of what the rest of his directorial work will be like, we are witnessing the birth of a major new talent. 


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