Love & Mercy manages to pull off something not many movies are capable of: telling two very different and mostly separate stories at once. The entire movie centers on Beach Boys singer/songwriter Brian Wilson, sure, but is split into parallel narratives. In one timeline is Brian (Paul Dano) at the height of the Beach Boys’ fame, hard at work writing music; in the other is Brian (John Cusack) in the late ‘80s, now debilitated by drugs and mental illness, carefully watched and controlled by Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) and striking up a romance with Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks).
I’ve been thinking a lot about why these two timelines, which are handled so separately, work so well as a single story. It’s not something that seems like it should work, with each narrative taking up roughly half of the movie rather than one subsumed into the other. I think it comes down to the way Brian is characterized, namely that while he’s clearly a man changed by the traumas of life in the Cusack iteration, he’s just as clearly the same empathic figure we see flexing his artistic genius when it’s Dano playing him. And please notice that that’s “empathic,” not “sympathetic.” Undoubtedly, the movie shows Brian sympathy, but the person himself is characterized as empathic. There’s a care for those around him and a quiet joie de vivre even in Brian’s darkest moments.
It’s hard to understate the quality in performance from both Dano and Cusack. Cusack plays the elder Brian with a childishness that belies the demons he faces down daily, the depth of his character smartly brought out as audience proxy Melinda gradually peels back the layers. (This not to belie Banks’s performance, which Cusack has called “the hardest job in the project.” It’s great to see her given a chance to flex her considerable dramatic talent.) The younger Brian, meanwhile, mirrors the same development as he begins veering away from the Beach Boys’ earlier, happier hits to probe darker corners with his art. Dano showcases a man who is caught between youth and maturity, juxtaposing the joy Brian finds in his art with sadness, at times at the subjects of his songs and at times at their commercial bastardization.
Dano’s parts, in particular, are augmented by one of the better presentations of the creative process committed to film. Brian’s genius is acknowledged; he enters the studio with ideas for songs, and the movie isn’t particularly concerned with their genesis beyond Brian’s full commitment to making evolutionary music. But it doesn’t leave the creation narrative there, either. Brian’s shown hard at work in studio, improvising, reworking, and improving each song with a team of professional studio musicians, not afraid to tweak even the smallest thing until he finds a result he likes. There’s a great part of a scene that has him playing with hairpins on the strings of a piano just to see what kind of new sound he can produce. This is one of the more specific examples, but the movie is full of visual suggestions of what might be going on in Brian’s head. Few visual cues call attention to themselves as fully formed visual tics, but they’re nonetheless present in a more subtle mode and prove a beautiful approximation of the creative process.
Thematically, the title sums up the prevailing motivations of the film more than any singular point it’s driving towards. Melinda certainly exudes both love and mercy to Brian, neither of which fail to find reciprocation. There’s also a subplot with Brian’s father that plays into the earlier timeline and undoubtedly calls to mind the challenges implicit in human community. The subplot is never anything more distinct than a sort of shadow at the edges of frame, but like so much of the rest of Love & Mercy it adds another layer to Brian, his life, and to his delightful complexity.
The Verdict: 4 out of 5
Love & Mercy is a film based on small moments; it follows one man far more than the Beach Boys, and it’s concerned with the swirling mental pressures that both drove him to create music still celebrated to this day and to descend into a personal hell he only began to emerge from decades later. Especially from a structural perspective, these two narratives seem so disparate, but the movie finds the fullness of the character of Brian Wilson by combining them through parallel character development and careful, subtle theming. Great performances from Paul Dano and John Cusack anchor a strong ensemble in a deeply empathic movie.