Cusack and Dano Proves To Be Two Sides of The Wilson Coin In “Love & Mercy”

By Scott Kurland
Film: Love & Mercy
Starring: John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks, Jake Abel, and Paul Giamatti
Rated: PG-13
Director: Bill Pohlad

    No one truly knows the burden of being a creative genius like Mozart, Lennon, or say...Brian Wilson. I also believe that no one really knows who Brian Wilson was. Yes, he was a “Beach Boy”. Sure, he gave us ‘Surfin’  U.S.A.’, ‘In My Room’, and ‘Little Surfer Girl’. He also created one of the most important albums in music history, “Pet Sounds”. What people don’t know about Wilson was how rough his life was. We all know he stayed in bed for almost three years, but what they don’t know about him is his abusive father, the mental breakdown, and how in the 80’s he was practically kidnapped by his doctor, Eugene Landy. This week’s film “Love & Mercy” starring Paul Dano and John Cusack as Wilson shows us those drastic points in his life. Let’s find out if it is any good, shall we?

    “Love & Mercy” takes places in two time periods. First we see young Brian Wilson (Paul Dano) in the 1960s, working on  “Pet Sounds”. Wilson is trying to achieve a level of musical genius that no one, including himself can comprehend. At this point Wilson is trying to get out of the shadow of his father and keep control of the band. However both his father Murry (Bill Camp) and cousin Mike (Jake Abel) are trying to thwart his efforts, and belittle the work he has created.

      In the 1980s a post breakdown Wilson (now played by John Cusack) is beaten down, lonely, and scared. Wilson is under the care of his doctor and legal guardian Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). Landy has Wilson on enough medication to take down a baby Rhino. When Wilson reaches out to a beautiful car sales person named Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), she tries to free the man she loves. A man who was once a musical genius that gave us "God Only Knows", has been turned into a drugged reliant lost soul who fears his doctor. It is the same way fear that his father instilled in him. Caught in an eternal struggle Wilson tries to find “Love & Mercy”.

    For years Bill Pohlad has been in Hollywood as a a top Producer, making films like “Brokeback Mountain”, “12 Years A Slave”, and “Into the Wild”. Pohlad makes his directorial debut with “Love & Mercy”, and it is quite an ambitious first film to undertake. Pohlad could have easily made this film into two parts, the first film being about Dano. The second film being about Cusack. However, Pohlad in a brilliant move blended those two films into one movie. I like that two film method, because it plays like a mix-tape. A very sad mix-tape, full of insight and wonder.

    You may not know this, but I’ve always had a man crush on John Cusack since I saw "High Fidelity" when I was twelve. For me he has and always will be the epitome of cool. Lloyd Dobbler  from “Say Anything” made me want to be positive and be proud that I was doing martial arts and kickboxing. Rob Gordon from “High Fidelity” was the music junkie I wish I could be. Martin Blank from “Grosse Pointe Blank” was...well he killed people. Cusack is Oscar worthy as the older Brian Wilson. He gives a very subtle and heartbreaking performance. Cusack explores the vast frontier of mental illness, and shows us a side of a musical legend that we didn’t even know existed. I hope come award season the Academy remembers this performance, it is one of the best of the year.

   Dano is equally as impressive as the younger Wilson. I’m very pleased that Dano was given full range to explore Wilson’s genius when they were in the studio. Pohlad allowed Dano to just embody the spirit that was Wilson and recreate the way Brian produced music. Trust me if you ever heard the “Pet Sounds” recordings sessions of Wilson, Dano nailed it. Like Cusack, Dano gives an Oscar Caliber performance. He taps into something great here, really exploring all things Brian. This performance from Dano really proves what an exceptional actor he is. Like Cusack he’s got quite the impressive resume with films like “There Will Be Blood”, “12 Years A Slave”, and the highly underrated “L.I.E.”. Dano has been overlooked time and time again when it comes to the award season, and I hope “Love & Mercy” changes that all.

     The performances of Wilson are of course the stars of the film, however the supporting roles of Banks and Giamatti really steal the show. Banks as Ledbetter is the prime focus of the older Wilson’s storyline. Banks has the difficult task of making Ledbetter empathetic to a man who was tortured by a domineering parent at a young age. Then in his mid 30s he was taken hold of by another abusive father figure. Banks has to tiptoe on that line of what is best for her and what is best for Cusack’s Brian. 

    Giamatti on the other hand, is absolutely terrifying. Dr. Landy is one of those manipulators who could be your friend one minute, and the next be beating the living daylights out of you. There’s one scene involving a barbecue where Brian is hungry and asking to be feed. When Banks feeds him oh boy the terror that ensues is frightening. Watching Giamatti flip on a dime is so horrifying from an audience’s perspective. Giamatti’s role was incredibly life like, and the real Brian Wilson was traumatized when he finally saw the film. That is the mark of a great actor folks.What it says to us is, you can lose yourself in a role so deeply that the audience can’t tell you apart from the real person. Giamatti does just that with the role of Landy, and we shall see if it pays off.

    As much as I liked “Love & Mercy” I do have a few problems with this film. They are minor flaws but they did stick out. As I said before, this could have easily been two separate films, one with Dano as the focus, the other  with Cusack. Making it one film does work, but I wanted more. I wanted to see the three year struggle of Dano as Wilson lying in bed afraid to leave his house. We get a form of that, but I wish they didn’t gloss past it in a thirty second visual blurb. Don’t get me wrong, Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner wrote a well written screenplay. It is one of the most detailed biopics I’ve seen, but I would have loved to see more and learn more. I wish this was a three hour epic biopic, because I love this cast and story so much. If my only complaint is I wanted more, then that proves how great this film is.

    “Love & Mercy” is a wonderful and heartbreaking film about a man who gave the world a library of amazing songs. Whether it is Cusack's inspired performance as the future Brian Wilson or Dano’s astonishing younger Brian Wilson, it is proof you can capture lightening in a bottle. “Love & Mercy” is a brilliant film and I hope more people will see it. This is a great biopic to go alongside “The Buddy Holly Story” and “Ray”. This is a must see.

scott kurlandComment