Love & Mercy ****

by Andres Solar

Beach Boys' co-founder Brian Wilson's life is wonderfully depicted

Is it worth $10? Yes

A fun, retro glow and superior performances from some talented A-listers are what you might expect from the biographical film about Beach Boys co-founder (and confounder) Brian Wilson. You'd be right, but you can expect so much more from director/producer Bill Pohlad's "Love & Mercy." Namely, a gripping story of a man nearly overwhelmed by his own talent.

As with many artists, Brian Wilson is at home in his art and at odds with the practicalities of life. Unpredictable bouts of panic and depression marked the years leading up to, and just after, he wrote, arranged, and produced one of the great rock-n-roll albums of all time, "Pet Sounds."

From the first frame in which he appears, Paul Dano ("Knight and Day" [2010]) is the perfect actor to play the 1960s and 1970s Wilson. When you meet Brian Wilson (through Dano and Pohlad), you're stricken by his childlike honesty and his sensitivity--in life, in art, in everything. Conditions that bring pain and inspiration. Later, it's bouts of paralyzing fear.

To this, a manipulative, pill-happy, greedy psychologist named Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti roaring on all cylinders) adds himself. He's a creepy, matronly figure, obsessively micromanaging Wilson's life. "I AM the control!" he says.

At this point, the 1980s, Wilson is played superbly by John Cusack. Under Landy's watch, Wilson goes out to buy himself a car and becomes enamored with a Cadillac saleswoman named Melinda Ledbetter. The actress is Elizabeth Banks ("The 40 Year-Old Virgin" [2005]) in a flawless, informed, and thoroughly lovely performance. Credit Pohlad, too, allowing her character to show persistent, undaunted beauty.

In one brilliantly acted and shot scene, you see Brian and Melinda sitting at a booth in a restaurant. The camera holds on her as he speaks, and behind her head you see his image fragmented in small decorative mirrors. "Love & Mercy" boasts masterful editing, commensurate with the music--aremarkable feat in itself.

Another scene early on features Dano himself singing and playing the piano on a sparse, devastating rendering of "God Only Knows." The poignant sequence depicts Wilson playing the song (which Paul McCartney deemed "the best song ever written") in its early stages for his unimpressed father.
The contrast between the familiar harmony vocals and Wilson's self-reflective, wrought-iron creations is where the beauty of "Pet Sounds" begins. He

takes the "Fun, Fun, Fun" of a Southern California sun-kissed day and says, in effect, "Let's add some thunderstorms. Not INSTEAD, but at the same time." By including the sounds and lives of the early Beach Boys, Pohlad creates the same contrast. The mood in most of "Love & Mercy," then, is similar to the Paul Thomas Anderson masterpiece "Boogie Nights" (1997), which, incidentally featured a large chunk of "God Only Knows" in a montage. California, big dreams, sexy people--and loneliness, rejection, darkness and desperation.

Inspired in its visual, verbal, and musical languages, the film allows itself to be led by Wilson's life and work. It feels like the Golden State itself, a sunshine dreamland streaked with dark altostratus clouds. The bittersweetness of the experience makes it more real and more honest.

Andres Solar reviews new fare with an emphasis on the art house and indies for Punch Drunk Movies. He would love to see Burt Reynolds in another Paul Thomas Anderson movie but understands that it probably “Ain’t gonna happen.”

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