The moral universe of “Love & Mercy,” the new biopic about Beach Boys virtuoso Brian Wilson (played by Paul Dano as a young man, and then by John Cusack), is as stark as the bright, metallic ring of a triangle. Even as an adult, Brian is prey to two men who control and manipulate him for their own gains: his violent, opportunistic father (Bill Camp) and his tyrannical, drug-pushing psychologist and caretaker Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). Coming to Brian’s rescue in magenta pumps is compassionate car saleswoman Melinda (Elizabeth Banks), nothing short of Wilson’s guardian angel.
Played by Dano as an ambitious prodigy on the verge of emotional collapse and by Cusack two decades later as a washed-up legend managed by his minders, Brian never really grows up. By portraying his protagonist as an aging, abused child throughout, director Bill Pohlad (better known as a producer of prestige pics) absolves him of all ethical faults and responsibilities — a storytelling decision that occasionally threatens to drag the film down into cloying hagiography. This version of Wilson is too innocent to indulge a selfish thought, let alone do anything wrong.
The rest of “Love & Mercy,” however, is a highly watchable tale of good and genius triumphing over evil and mediocrity. Certain scenes, like the studio sessions in which Dano improvised with actual instrumentalists to recreate Wilson’s symphonic sound (the actor conducting the musicians with firecrackers as his batons), are downright inspired. Dano breaks hearts while Banks heals them, though Cusack gets mired in tics and contortions.
Best of all, writers Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner breezily reference Brian Wilson’s multiple lives through shorthand, achieving a sharply focused and admirably dense narrative that feels as crowd-pleasing and as creatively searching as their protagonist’s own work. (Moverman previously took a kaleidoscopic look at the life of Bob Dylan with the screenplay of Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There.”)
The opening scene in which Brian and Melinda meet-cute at her Cadillac dealership hints at the maternal dynamic to follow. The saleswoman struts over, her hands casually but possessively caressing a floor model before greeting her shambling, rambling customer. She’s gracious when he apologizes for tracking sand all over the car, though it’s not clear whether she’s charmed by him or just curious and polite. His retinue, including Dr. Landy, reveal Brian’s fame to Melinda, and the former Beach Boy grimaces. “That stuff doesn’t matter,” he insists about his ’60s output. Later, he confesses, “It sort of destroys my brain.”
The wan romance that develops between Melinda and Brian is never quite convincing; he’s so wretched and damaged on their chaperoned dates that it occasionally feels like watching a grown woman go on a pity date with a child with crow’s feet. On their first outing, Brian recalls how his dad used to clobber his head so much he went 90% deaf in one ear. It’s not long before Melinda realizes that Dr. Landy is just another cruel father figure in Brian’s life and determines to finally set the musician free.
Melinda’s cunning and quietly ferocious battles with Dr. Landy are intercut with extended flashbacks to the struggles that eventually broke apart the Beach Boys, depicted here as one Simon outnumbered by four fair-haired Garfunkels. (The band’s faux-surfer years are nostalgically but hurriedly remembered via montage.) As if the pressure to keep up artistically and commercially with The Beatles while exuding a phony-baloney public wholesomeness weren’t enough, Brian is beset with aural hallucinations, some chemically induced, some just a product of his impaired mental health.
It’s voyeuristically fascinating to watch a gifted singer-songwriter attempting to cope with his complicated relationship not just to music, but to sound itself. On one acid trip, he’s as flummoxed as we are by the shrill thrumming: Is this material for his next arrangement – rococo aural assemblages that include sleigh bells, train noise, and dog barks – or a manifestation of pain that demands artistic expression? As Brian’s grasp on reality slips, it becomes easier, tragically, to see how he becomes the invalid that didn’t leave his bed for three years that Melinda later meets.
Dano anchors the film with his barely concealed agony, while Banks introduces some much needed warmth and humor to the film. (Melinda’s pretty much it as far as significant female characters go. The film doesn’t just flunk the Bechdel test; it’s never even heard of it.) Like Wilson’s cornball “California Girls,” “Love & Mercy” is by no means a complicated portrait, and yet it’s a curiously satisfying one.