Wouldn't it be nice if Beach Boy Brian Wilson's troubled life were as easily understood as Love & Mercy makes it appear? Where the Pet Sounds auteur is known for multi-part harmonies, director Bill Pohlad's biopic is a series of simple duets.
Scripter Oren Moverman, who shares credit with Michael Alan Lerner but is reportedly the principal writer, summoned seven Dylans for I'm Not There. Here he presents just two Brians: one from 1963-67, and another from roughly two decades later. The first is artistically agile, but beginning to lose his psychological balance; the second is essentially imprisoned, and ready to break free.
Crucially, the movie also juggles two acting styles. Paul Dano takes a cinematic approach to the younger Brian, even packing on some baby-genius fat to more closely resemble the Beach Boy who preferred junk food and cigarettes to surfing (or touring with the band). John Cusack's version of the older man is more distanced and theatrical, without attempts at either physical or psychological impersonation. The performance is amiable but not very convincing, and doesn't mesh with the literal-minded rest of the movie.
The two chapters are interwoven, with equal emphasis on both. That makes some sense, since the making of Pet Sounds is virtually guaranteed to elicit smiley smiles, even from fans who know the history well enough to see how it's been condensed and elided.
Yet the later story has more dramatic potential. After years of little musical output, Wilson is under the 24-hour-a-day authority of psychologist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), who controls the onetime pop prodigy with drugs the therapist is not legally allowed to prescribe. The becalmed Beach Boy is rescued by Cadillac saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), who sues Landy and eventually marries Brian.
Giamatti and Banks both give enthusiastic but predictable performances in shallowly written roles. Cusack portrays the Landy-dominated Brian as child-like and sometimes fearful, but capable of sly self-awareness. This seems unlikely, given his '80s diet of sedatives and anti-psychotics.
Aside from the heroic Ledbetter, Wilson's relationships are mostly with villains: Landy, of course, but also his father Murry (Bill Camp) and cousin and bandmate Mike Love (Jake Abel). Those two want hits, and don't appreciate Brian's attempts to expand the group's style and lace the fun-fun-fun with wistfulness and rue.
To acknowledge Wilson's many collaborators, the movie fleetingly introduces two of them, Tony Asher and Van Dyke Parks. But it doesn't explain what either of them did. (Asher wrote most of Pet Sounds' lyrics, and Parks served repeatedly as Wilson's lyrical and musical foil.) It's easier to dramatize a lone prodigy, so the movie makes all the good musical ideas appear to be Brian's. In reality, even Mike Love had his moments.
Love & Mercy is named, curiously, for a 1988 song that Wilson supposedly co-wrote with Landy. (The extent of the therapist's contribution has been questioned.) But the movie wisely concentrates on the mid-'60s music, making expert use of the vocal-free backing tracks released on the Pet Sounds box set. Even Atticus Ross' shattered-pop score, used to evoke Wilson's alienation and auditory hallucinations, is cut and pasted mostly from Beach Boys ditties.
Those tunes wouldn't be remembered so fondly, however, if they were all sadness, self-doubt, and the disconnection Pohlad visualizes by showing Wilson behind windows or reflected in mirrors. So the final song, which ends a flawed movie with an immaculate burst of joy? Let's just say it's not "Hang on to Your Ego."