In many ways, director Bill Pohlad’s Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy is a much riskier proposition than the usual showbiz biography. Although it features much of the feel-good Southern California sounds of the Beach Boys, the movie itself is a very dark, rather harrowing look into mental illness — at least as far as it affected Wilson, who was misdiagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic by Eugene Landy, the shady and conniving therapist who took control of his life for several years, sending him even deeper into the abyss of his psychosis.
And Pohlad’s decision to cast two actors, Paul Dano and John Cusack, in the title role was daring. After all, actors usually play it all these days. Think Robert De Niro in Raging Bull or Jamie Foxx in Ray. This film zigzags back and forth between the two actors playing Wilson at different points in his life, so you have to suspend disbelief that Dano and Cusack don’t really look like they could be the same person. But that aside, it is their remarkable acting achievement that you still believe both are Wilson. When I first saw the film at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, I did have a hard time with the concept, but after seeing it again yesterday at my home beachtown theater just a few miles away from where Wilson grew up with his brothers, cousin and friend who made up the Beach Boys, I see it really does work.
Playing the younger Wilson, Dano is just superb as the budding musical genius whose father put him down but whose raw musical talent was undeniable. Those scenes with the father (Bill Camp), who managed the group until they fired him, are hard to watch, as is much of the film. It’s raw and real and doesn’t sugarcoat Wilson’s illness. The musician and his second wife (played by the terrific Elizabeth Banks) were consultants on the film and have said that Pohlad and his screenwriters Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner have gotten it right. In doing so they also have created a different kind of biopic.
Dano also shows real musical talent on a couple of songs, but the majority of the music in the film features original tracks of the Beach Boys. Cusack, so underrated, has never been better. Banks adds a much-needed ray of light to the film, and Paul Giamatti as Landy makes a good villain, though the one-dimensional portrait is not painted with shades of gray. Landy died in 2006, so we will never know what he thinks about how he comes off here.
Do you plan to see Love & Mercy? Let us know what you think.