From Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro in “The Godfather” movies to Judi Dench and Kate Winslet in “Iris,” some of our finest actors have played the same character at different junctures on a timeline.
In Bill Pohlad’s energizing, meticulously crafted, nearly pitch-perfect “Love & Mercy,” Paul Dano plays Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys as a young man at his creative height in the 1960s — and John Cusack plays Wilson some 20 years later, when the voices in his head are overwhelming his very being, and he can’t make even the simplest of decisions without the counsel of the legendarily controlling therapist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti).
Rarely have two actors been so effective playing the same character while taking totally different approaches.
Dano bears a slight resemblance to the young Brian Wilson, from the Beatle-esque mop of hair to the growing paunch, and he does a magnificent job of capturing Brian’s increasingly eccentric tics and mannerisms.
Cusack makes no attempt whatsoever to look like Wilson, but he’s equally brilliant in capturing the musician’s quietly intense speech patterns, his sometimes childlike way of blurting out deep secrets — and his chilling bouts of paranoia.
“Love & Mercy” is two fine movies woven into one. The scenes set in the 1960s are mostly about Brian Wilson’s artistic ascendancy, as he takes the Beach Boys from the mindless, catchy surf-themed hits to the intricate, gorgeous, trippy and timeless world of songs such as “God Only Knows” and “Good Vibrations,” some of the greatest music created in the 20th century. In the 1980s, it’s all about Brian’s personal growth, as he strikes up a romance with a sweet woman who works at a Cadillac dealership and struggles to shake loose from the manipulative Dr. Landy and the mountain of pills Landy insists Brian ingest every day.
Pohlad and screenwriters Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner have fashioned a creative and fresh musical biopic that captures the unbearable mental anguish Wilson suffered (“I’ve been hearing voices [since] 1963” he says matter-of-factly in a 1980s sequence) and the sheer creative joy he experienced when walking some two dozen musicians through the incredibly complex and groundbreaking arrangements for the “Pet Sounds” album. Rarely has a film delved so deeply and richly into the process of bringing a pop song to life. We can feel Brian’s joy leaping right off the screen.
We can also feel his pain — and the difficulties he inflicted on others, including of course his brothers and his cousin, who would go on tour without the reclusive Brian (who was prone to panic attacks) and return home to find their leader ever more detached from reality, from the giant sandbox in his bedroom to his insistence the Beach Boys set aside the hit machine and release strange, radio-unfriendly music. Jake Abel is terrific as Mike Love, who has that perfect pop voice but had little understanding of (and little tolerance for) Brian’s more ambitious compositions.
Paul Giamatti is frighteningly effective as Eugene Landy, who’s just as controlling and cruel as Brian’s own father (an excellent Bill Camp), who verbally and physically abused Brian. (Wilson is nearly deaf in one ear as the result of his father’s beatings.) When the middle-aged Brian finds the courage to ask a Cadillac dealer named Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) on a date, Landy and a bodyguard tag along. As the relationship progresses, Landy tells Melinda all of her contact with Brian must be filtered through him. If there was a positive aspect to Landy’s relationship with Wilson, this film doesn’t show it. As played by Giamatti, he’s a horrific monster.
Banks takes what could have been a standard girlfriend role and shades it with lovely colors. Melinda is kind and patient, and she truly cares for Brian — but she’s had her heart broken before, and there’s only so much she’ll endure before exiting Brian’s life.
Dano is an actor whose mannerisms and showy moves sometimes take us out of a film, but here he’s giving a controlled, nuanced performance. We believe every inch of the panic attack Brian suffers on a flight, and we believe every note of the studio scenes.
Cusack has a few physical moves, notably Brian’s awkward placement of his hands, as if he doesn’t know what to do with them when he’s not at the piano, but his performance is mostly about the voice and how Brian almost sounds like he’s outside of himself when he describes the horrors of his childhood, and the battles he’s facing every morning when he wakes up.
Also, and always, there’s the music. After seeing “Love & Mercy,” you’ll find it nearly impossible to resist the urge to download (or re-listen to) a dozen Beach Boys classics.