I get royally sick of biopics, mostly because they often fall into the trap of trying to summarize a person’s entire life by forcing it into a three act structure, which neither serves to commemorate the lives they portray, nor does it make biopics thematically or structurally distinct from one another. That’s why when a film like Love and Mercy comes along, I take notice. Written by the same screenwriter that wrote the excellent Bob Dylan film I’m Not There, Love and Mercy is a great example of how to use non-linear storytelling in order to capture some key moments in a person’s life in order to tell a compelling story that isn’t overburdened with the baggage of an entire life story.
Love and Mercy chronicles two periods of singer/songwriter Brian Wilson’s life: the 1960s, where he (played by Paul Dano) was the lead singer and composer for The Beach Boys and worked on the later albums Pet Sounds and the unfinished Smile; and the 1980s, where an older Brian (John Cusack) struggles with mental illness under the watchful eye of the manipulative Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), as he courts a woman, Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), who ultimately acts as his key to freedom.
The way the two stories are cut together makes for incredibly interesting storytelling, as the two begin to converge around the nature of Brian’s mental illness, with his younger self losing his grip on reality as the older version struggles to find his way back towards it while his so-called doctor pushes him down into suggestible catatonia. The film also makes a remarkable use of sound to convey Brian’s mental faculties and processes, whether it is snippets of unfinished songs that we hear racing through his head, or the overloud cacophony of knives and forks scraping across plates as his anxiety reaches new heights. It’s a fascinating look at how mental illness could affect someone with such a deft musical ear.
If the film has one major failing, though, it is in the consistency of the performances. Paul Dano is suitably disturbed as the younger Brian, and Elizabeth Banks once again proves how great of an actress she is by injecting Melinda with a sense of humanity and strength that a lesser actress would have simply projected as distress. However, John Cusack feels like he doesn’t quite have a handle on any emotion other than sullen manic depression, making his version of Brian feel relatively one-dimensional, and Paul Giamatti really oversells his take on Dr. Landy, coming off as less than subtly menacing and more of an obvious shrifter with a quick temper.
Overall, though, Love and Mercy is a damn fine film that really captures the essence of the tortured life that Brian Wilson lived. It captures that essence, but does not feel the need to act as a narrative summary of Wilson's Wikipedia article. More biopics need to trim their fat and focus on the key moments that make their protagonists who they are, and find a story to tell other than the usual rags-to-riches nonsense. Let’s hope that in the upcoming biopic-heavy awards season that more films follow this model. Though I’m not counting on it.