Bill Pohlad's "Love and Mercy" gets two things right. First, it reveals the fractured genius of singer-songwriter Brian Wilson in two distinct times of his life without losing momentum in either section. Too often, the balance and dynamic force is weighed distinctly towards one portion of the film or the other, but in "Love and Mercy", they coalesce and compliment each other beautifully. Secondly, it exalts and analyzes the frustrated, creative mindset of a musical icon while he's still alive and kicking on this mortal coil- which makes the film that much more respectful. We can seek out, experience and savor the man's artistry without resorting to testimonials of his marginalized existence while the actual artistry was being created. Beyond that, "Love and Mercy" is an actor's movie that digs deep and allows the masterly performances of its principals (Paul Dano, John Cusack and Elizabeth banks) to convey the complicated, scatter shot emotions involved.
Picking up well into the Beach Boys' mid 60's success, "Love and Mercy" hones in on the increasing uncomfortable pause exuded by Brian Wilson (Dano) as their fame grows and a Japanese tour looms. Convincing his brothers to tour without him, Wilson shutters himself off in the studio to work out the now revolutionary melange of sound that would eventually bracket their album "Pet Sounds". Considered a flop in its day, pressured by other band members to resort back to their hit-making standards and emotionally stunted by his abusive and overbearing father (Bill Camp), Wilson's fragile and active psyche begins to fissure under the stress.
While simultaneously telling this story, "Love and Mercy" jumps ahead in time to 1985 where middle aged Brian Wilson (Cusack) is just as stunted as ever, both creatively by the monstrous hand of Dr. Eugene Lundy (Paul Giamatti, who can do this type of role in his sleep) and emotionally, such as when upon first meeting who would be his ultimate savior in life, Melinda (Elizabeth Banks), he cordons himself off in a car with her and zigzags through a conversation that is both creepy and achingly lonely. Their relationship is the heart of the film. It doesn't overshadow the strong formations of mental sickness exhibited by young Wilson and Dano in an equally memorable performance, but it strikes at something more human and restless.
By blending both portions of Wilson's tortured life together as if they're happening at the same time, filmmaker Pohlad and screenwriter Oren Moverman elicit a fully formed and wide-eyed portrait of a cliched subject with fresh acuity. There may be a bit of armchair philosophizing involved, but no scene is as incisive as the first date between Melinda and Brian.... while opening up about his father, the camera holds on Elizabeth Bank's range of expressive reactions, followed up with a wry, half-hurt uneasy dismissal of "well, shit!" Lots of films have focused on the conflicted nature of creative personas well ahead of their time, but "Love and Mercy" shows us that paradigm and then allows something beautiful, besides the art, to flourish from it.