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Article by Teddy Durgin

Picking up mostly good vibrations from 'Love & Mercy'

Brian Wilson wrote more than just songs; he composed generational touchstones. He came up with lyrics and melodies that people literally hear in their heads years, even decades later as they recall falling in love for the first time, going on beach trips with friends and family, even when loved ones have passed away. I've heard "God Only Knows" played at both weddings and funerals. The same goes for "Wouldn't It Be Nice." And both songs have always somehow been absolutely perfect for both occasions, evoking wholly different thoughts and feelings. Remarkably, the older Wilson got and the more he wrote, the deeper and more intricate his music became. He could certainly write a bubble-gum pop tune about surfing or cars or just plain having fun, fun, fun. But he could also get inside the human psyche and pull out our deepest wants and needs for love, for connection, for shelter from a cruel and cynical world. He wrote this stuff despite coming from a background of terrible mental and physical abuse at the hands of his dad. He wrote this stuff despite a mental illness that caused him to hear voices in his head and to wig out when the sounds of his often-chaotic existence became too much. He wrote this stuff despite pressure from his brothers and cousins and legions of fans to continue being brilliant. Few could understand how the great stuff just seemed to flow out of him. Even fewer could understand when the inspiration and the words and the melodies just would not come. "Love & Mercy" is a musical biopic that seeks to relate both the creative genius of Brian Wilson and his downward spiral into drug addiction and near madness. It does this successfully by showing the artist at two distinct points of his life - the first in the 1960s as he was writing the Beach Boys' masterpiece album, "Pet Sounds;" the second in the 1980s when he met a pretty, young car saleswoman named Melinda (Elizabeth Banks), who came to discover that he was being used, abused and isolated from his family and friends by an unscrupulous psychiatrist named Eugene (Paul Giamatti). One of the hooks of the film is that Wilson is played by two different actors in the different time periods. In the '60s, he is portrayed by Paul Dano who is extremely impressive here in the flashier, more interesting of the two eras when Wilson is zipping around recording studios, assembling musicians and obsessing on notes, all the while dealing with a bitter, envious father and a band of brothers and cousins who don't quite understand the change in musical direction he is pushing everyone to. With this role, Dano officially emerges in my book as one of the absolute finest, most daring young actors working in film today. Here, he nails both Brian Wilson's genius and his mania. In the '80s, Wilson is played by John Cusack. And he is not nearly as successful in his half of the film. True, it is the less fun, less showy time period of Brian's life. Drugs had taken their toll by then, and he was much more introverted and impaired. But Cusack's energy as an actor is at odds with the material here. We've seen his charm in countless rom-coms over the past three decades, so his scenes romancing Banks's Melinda at times come off as a strained, muted version of one of those opposites-attract flicks than the more substantive and serious take on love the filmmakers were going for here. In several scenes, you actually see Cusack straining to underplay. Regardless, "Love & Mercy" is a mostly compelling biopic, with top-notch tech credits (the sound design is exquisite). Will Dano and the film be remembered come award season later in the year? Wouldn't it be nice... but God only knows.

"Love & Mercy" is rated PG-13 for thematic material, drug content and language.


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