Brian Wilson's work in The Beach Boys is often recognized as among the most important in the history of popular music, and rightfully so; critics and artists alike have been calling "Pet Sounds" and "SMiLE" masterpieces for decades, and their music in general is a staple of oldies stations everywhere. However, it is this kind of acclaim that makes it difficult to actually adapt a person's life to film because the man doesn't matter as much as the legend. In the creation of Love and Mercy, however, director Bill Pohlad aimed to humanize Wilson, and the results are actually quite successful.
One of the film's most intriguing aspects is the nonlinear structure of the film's narrative. Rather than following Brian Wilson's life from youth to adulthood, it regularly cuts between "Brian Future," the life of Wilson as depicted by John Cusack in the 1980s under the control of psychiatrist Eugene Landy, and "Brian Past," the more traditional biopic that portrays the creation of "Pet Sounds" and "SMiLE" by a younger Brian Wilson, played by Paul Dano. The Brian Future story, being where the film both begins and ends, is definitely the most inherently interesting for me, as it portrays Brian Wilson not as a legendary artist, but as a man who suffered and later achieved some level of freedom. However, it was very quick for me to realize that Brian Past was also a very well-made story, primarily because of the incredible performance from Paul Dano, an actor who first came to prominence in 2006's Little Miss Sunshine. While I do admire him as an actor, I've always felt that Little Miss Sunshine was his only truly great performance, but, here, he absolutely shines. His entire character shines with a sort of transcendental glee, blending childlike optimism and undoubtedly energetic curiosity during scenes in the recording of the music with a frank and believable fear in situations concerning his constant abuse and mental illness. Unfortunately, no other performance is quite as believable, Cusack coming off as very shallow in an attempt to appear aloof and unwell and Paul Giamatti as Dr. Landy entertainingly chewing the scenery as a pure villain.
Even outside of the acting, the Brian Past half of the film is far superior. This is heavily due to the genuinely incredible cinematography employed in these scenes, primarily noticeable in the scenes set in recording studios. It has a love of wide, distant shots that seem to paint the film as less an exploration of Wilson as a person and more a portrayal of the world he lived in, a living, breathing landscape of sparse beauty. While Pohlad's direction certainly works in the Brian Future half of the film and sometimes attempts the same thing, it, unfortunately, seems far less distinct and much more focused on the actors themselves.
Ultimately, Love and Mercy succeeds in much of what it wants to do. It is a human, emotional film. The tragic thing is, this film, just like a human, is full of flaws that make it difficult to really praise. However, also like a human, its flaws cannot totally hide the beauty underneath that this film carries in spades and exists to celebrate. I remain entirely hopeful for first-time director Bill Pohlad's work in the future.