Wouldn’t it be nice if “Love & Mercy,” the uneven biopic about Beach Boys cofounder Brian Wilson, was as persuasive as the performances of the two actors who play him at different periods of his life?
God only knows that the singer-songwriter’s personal saga is complicated and eccentric enough to merit a big-screen treatment, but whether going back and forth between Paul Dano and John Cusack playing the man 20 years apart is a good idea is another question entirely.
Both actors, especially Dano, do strong work, yet though each of them bears a resemblance to the Beach Boys’ presiding genius, they don’t look particularly like each other, which is only one reason why this self-conscious film feels convincingly told only part of the time.
Director Bill Pohlad pushed for the two-Wilsons-no-waiting approach, bringing in writer Oren Moverman (who helped Todd Haynes sliver Bob Dylan into six pieces in “I’m Not There”) to rewrite Michael Alan Lerner’s script.
Pohlad is a veteran producer but not as experienced as a director, and the two Brian Wilsons problem is symptomatic of the difficulty he has had reconciling not just two diverse story lines but also the different approaches to filmmaking implicit in each.
The best, most involving sections of “Love & Mercy” take place in the 1960s and star Dano as a brilliant creator of pop music (“Good Vibrations,” the “Pet Sounds” album) unlike any that had been heard before. (Wilson apparently agrees: He’s quoted in the press notes as saying, “My favorite scenes in the movie are the ones in the studio where I’m producing the record.”)
But even these sections are muddied by Pohlad’s weakness for strained artiness, like a shot that apparently sends a camera down, down, down Wilson’s auditory canal.
Less involving are the 1980s scenes, with Cusack doing as well as he can with the somnolent Wilson, totally under the thumb of Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), his manipulative Svengali of a therapist.
Even if you didn’t know that “Love & Mercy” was made with the extensive cooperation of Wilson and his wife, Melinda, you could sense it in the square, authorized-biography way the film conveys this part of the story, which details how Melinda (Elizabeth Banks) played a key part in rescuing Wilson from Landy’s clutches. Though the story is true, its sanitized feel is off-putting at best.
Its one of the paradoxes of Wilson’s saga that out of his troubled mind came the magnificently harmonic sound, as unmistakable as pop music gets, that propelled the Beach Boys to enormous success with teen anthems like “Fun Fun Fun,” “Surfin’ USA” and “I Get Around.”
Dano, who has managed to look and behave uncannily like the 1960s Wilson, portrays him as very much the solitary genius who is sincere and earnest about his work. His especially effective opening moment has him sitting in front of a piano and musing, “Sometimes it scares me to think about where the music comes from. What if I lose it, what if I never get it back? What would I do then?”
That fear is not the only thing that scares Wilson. An episode of paralyzing fear on an airplane leads to his request of band members that they leave him home while they tour Japan. Upset that the Beatles have pushed pop music’s boundaries with “Rubber Soul,” he insists, “I can’t let them get ahead of us. I can take us further.”
The work Wilson does in the studio recording the groundbreaking but uncommercial “Pet Sounds” with the ace musicians known as the Wrecking Crew (Teresa Cowles is cast as a dead ringer for bassist Carol Kaye) is one of “Love & Mercy’s” most involving sequences. Later, when he creates “Good Vibrations” to his exact specifications, we see the beginnings of the obsessiveness that proves to be a problem.
We also get to see Wilson’s fractured and toxic relationship with father and onetime Beach Boys manager Murry (Bill Camp), portrayed as an abusive and aggrieved bully whom Wilson kept trying to please, perhaps establishing the pattern for his later relationship with therapist Landy.
Though Wilson and Melinda meet-cute at a Cadillac dealership where she is a crack saleswoman, the 1980s sequences of “Love & Mercy” are less interesting to watch than the earlier sections. Wilson is so under the thumb of the intrusive, controlling Landy and Melinda is such a sure-to-succeed white knight that their battles, even one over a container of takeout matzo ball soup, lack the texture of reality even if they actually happened. Pohlad did not lack for ideas about how he wanted to portray Brian Wilson’s life, but he is without the wherewithal to effectively put them into practice.
‘Love & Mercy’
MPAA rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, drug content, language
Running time: 2 hours
Playing: In general release