Love & Mercy is a very entertaining biopic of Beach Boys founder Brian Wilson, and hardly the screaming train wreck I expected when I heard that the legendary songwriter, producer, and arranger would be played by two different actors—Paul Dano during Wilson’s glory years in the mid-60s, ending in his complete mental and physical breakdown, and John Cusack during Wilson’s traumatic experience as the patient of bullying psychiatrist Eugene Landy in the early 90s, from whom he was rescued (or so the movie asserts) by Melinda Ledbetter, an LA car dealer who has become his second wife. Having two different adults play the same character at different points in his life has never worked for me, and screenwriters Owen Moverman (The Messenger, Rampart) and Michael A. Lerner heighten the contrast by interpolating the Dano and Cusack story lines. But then, Moverman’s first big success, I’m Not There (2007), split Bob Dylan into six different actors, so I guess this is sort of an improvement.
The casting gimmick does make Love & Mercy an ideal date movie—my wife and I spent the walk home debating who was better as Wilson. She chose Dano, but he’s too solemn and moony for my taste—he’s incapable of communicating the all-American goofiness that masked Wilson’s mania for so long. I chose Cusack, but only because I like Cusack in general; I never believed he was Brian Wilson. His flattering portrayal of the musician as an amiable teddy bear doesn’t really jibe with the awkward, abrupt, self-aggrandizing, and sometimes insensitive man who sits for interviews, or the stony-faced singer who fronted a ten-piece band during the aughts, a weirdly incongruous figure in a jubilant ensemble dedicated to his own music.
Watching the movie, I tried to imagine how one might feel not just seeing oneself played onscreen by a famous actor but seeing oneself played onscreen by two of them. For Brian Wilson, though, this is nothing new: people identify so strongly with his music that they can wind up colonizing him. According to Chicagoist, when Wilson and Cusack appeared at the Music Box Theatre for a Q&A following a preview screening of Love & Mercy, a fan in the audience went on at length about how Wilson’s music had helped him deal with his grandmother’s death and Wilson cut him off: “Your time’s up. Let the next person up.” There were probably another ten people in line behind that guy, hoping to tell Wilson a similar tale. My story must speak to him, fans reason, because his story speaks so strongly to me. I too am a misunderstood genius, a connoisseur of heartache, a beacon of innocence, a tribune of joy. I too just wasn’t made for these times.
Like the Beatles’ story, Wilson’s early career has hardened into myth, one that proves endlessly seductive to pop-music fans because his crack-up meshes so beautifully with the growing eccentricity of his records. Lerner and Moverman cover its complete arc, opening with a montage of the Beach Boys on their way up in 1963 and ’64 and then dramatizing: Wilson’s nervous breakdown, which persuaded him to quit touring and focus on recording; his masterminding of the classic Pet Sounds LP, the sessions for which are scrupulously re-created from surviving session tapes; his battle with singer Mike Love over the psychedelic opus Smile, which was ultimately shelved (Wilson would finally complete it in 2004); and his consequent retreat into his Santa Monica bedroom to drink, drug, and eat himself into a horizontal stupor. Wilson the mad artist is a character who never gets old, a role we can all play just by slipping on a pair of headphones.
Less known is the Brian Wilson who spent a decade undergoing 24-hour therapy—effectively, house arrest—at the hands of Landy, who insinuated himself into Wilson’s life as a songwriting partner, a record producer, and a beneficiary of his will. A cornucopia of pharmaceuticals kept Wilson in a haze for much of this period, which may be why this part of the movie plays like “The Melinda Ledbetter Story” (with Elizabeth Banks in a typically fine performance). During this period Landy supervised the writing of Wilson’s 1991 autobiography Wouldn’t It Be Nice—which reads like “The Eugene Landy Story”—and Wilson later disowned the book. “Brian acknowledges that he can’t remember everything about his life and has relied upon certain preparations,” explained his cowriter, Todd Gold. Wilson is now working on a new autobiography, defiantly titled “I Am Brian Wilson.” But his life story has never been a nonfiction book. It’s more like a coloring book. v