Movie Review - Love & Mercy

There are two parallel stories taken from the life of Brian Wilson, the singer-songwriter who founded the music band The Beach Boys. One story focuses on young Brian during his making of his two best albums Pet Sounds and Smile. The other story focuses on older Brian during his romance with Melinda Ledbetter, a model-turned-Cadillac salesman in California. The two stories are seemingly separate, distinct and could almost be about two different people. The gap is bridged through a clunky collision in the third act and in the end-credits, but that doesn't diminish how spectacularly told the two separate stories are.

John Cusack (Being John Malkovich and High Fidelity) stars as older Brian who is obviously taken with the beauty of Melinda Ledbetter, played by Elizabeth Banks (The Hunger Games and The 40-Year-Old Virgin). He's also perhaps charmed by her not recognizing him, the assumption being that she coulbe taken with him not for his money or fame.

Paul Giamatti (Sideways and American Splendor) co-stars as Gene, a man who one assumes to be a kind of manager, not just for older Brian's career but also his life. At first, Brian seems eccentric but it quickly becomes clear that he perhaps has some kind of mental illness. Gene's role then evolves into over-protective caretaker and possible neurotic doctor, but what he becomes is something far creepier and scarier, and Giamatti brilliantly handles the unpeeling and rather unraveling of this man who hovers over older Brian.

As we watch this super sweet, super awkward and super romantic relationship develop between older Brian and Melinda, Gene becomes a third wheel. The dynamic is one that I've never seen before. There have been plenty of movies that has had a third wheel come in between or try to divide two people in love. Anne Bancroft in The Graduate is a prime example. Christian Bale in The Fighter is another great example, and Giamatti here can be ranked as one of the best, but he goes above and beyond. Thanks to a great script, written by Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner, Gene gets great lines like "I am control." The movie also has the best use of a hamburger I've seen in a while.

Yet, this is only the second feature directed by Bill Pohlad. Pohlad mainly has been a film financier. He was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture as one of the producers of The Tree of Life. This film doesn't have all the great visuals of that Terrence Malick masterpiece, but it does employ some great shots and editing to help tell the story in a more powerful and profound way.

Some might notice or take issue with the handheld shots. It's not in the shaky cam tradition that has been the trend in the past decade, the Paul Greengrass or found-footage, cinematography style. Given the question of mental illness, it's a subtle way of keeping the audience, like Wilson, off balance a little.

However, I was struck with a shot of Banks in a restaurant booth. Melinda and older Brian are on a date and Pohlad keeps the camera on her face with a tiny reflection of Brian behind her. Pohlad doesn't cut, or he barely edits. He keeps the camera on her for an uncomfortably long time and achieves an anxious but also intimate effect. Despite this long, continuous take on Banks' face, Pohlad is actually at his best when he has his camera lingering on Cusack's visage who charms or devastates with every frame he's in.

Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine and There Will Be Blood) co-stars as young Brian, and Pohlad is also at his best when he's lingering on Dano's face. It's through young Brian that we see the origins of a mental illness and explore the idea that many movies about musicians have explored, which is if the mental illness or altered mental state aides or in part fuels the creativity or the work of the musician. There are visual metaphors that are perhaps clunky like young Brian literally being in the deep end of a swimming pool.

But, what isn't clunky though is the use of sound and sound editing. Another meal scene has young Brian hearing the amplified clinking and clanging noises of silverware. It may seem heavy-handed and too obvious, but it's a great representation of the trouble and excitement inside Brian's head.

Jake Abel (Percy Jackson and Tru Loved) who plays Mike Love, the cousin of Brian Wilson and co-lead singer of The Beach Boys, is spot on as the naysayer who opposes young Brian's ideas and direction for how the new albums should be. Mike echoes the sentiments of Brian's father, played by Bill Camp. Those sentiments are that the band should stick to the happy, surfer music, which are guaranteed hits, and not the deeper and more experimental stuff that's true to Brian's artistry and spirit.

A bit of trivia, Giamatti, Dano and Camp were actors who all appeared in the Oscar-winning film 12 Years a Slave, which was a film executive produced by Pohlad. That movie was also a biopic, obviously a far different one. This film has a lot more charm and not the same level of seriousness or importance but still a great piece of filmmaking.

Five Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, drug content and language.
Running Time: 2 hrs.


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