September 21, 2019

POPCORN: “Love & Mercy” Sad but True

3 popcorns

3 popcorns

3 popcorns

By Michael S. Goldberger

Special to the Observer

Do mental illness and genius go hand in hand? I think not. It’s just that things we have very little understanding of frequently give the impression of association. There’s even an alluring sub-genre of films dedicated to the dramatic exploitation of this rather shopworn cliché. This isn’t one of them. To director Bill Pohlad’s credit, his “Love & Mercy” takes the high road in its portrait of music virtuoso Brian Wilson and the psychological demons that bedeviled him.

Gosh…we just thought they were great songs. Only those close to the brains of “The Beach Boys” knew of the profound suffering that went into so many of those often jaunty, always melodic, pop-philosophical sounds of a generation. So we’re rather aghast when we learn the touching backstory, an edifying delve into the trials and tribulations of an extremely gifted composer/singer/musician trying to find a comfortable place to create amidst an inundating barrage of distractions, real and imagined.

Amateur psychologists are given plenty to chaw on as the story switches back and forth from the group’s nascency in the 1960s to the 1980s, with Paul Dano playing Wilson as a young man and John Cusack depicting him in his forties, each era brandishing a hateful villain. Director Pohlad, working from a screenplay written by Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner, with material culled from Wilson’s biography, pulls no punches. Brian’s father, Murry (Bill Camp), is shown as a pompous despot, hard-driving and insensitive to his troubled son’s need for approval.

Adding physical insult to mental injury, it is further documented that dear old Dad, via a severe blow to Brian’s head, may have been responsible for the rock star’s partial deafness in his right ear. What a guy. While watching, one can’t help but segue to frightening thoughts of all the lousy parents over all the centuries who rendered such barbaric, damaging punishments, most of them probably rationalizing they were doing their offspring, and therefore civilization, a service.

Mr. Cusack’s splendidly constructed, put upon survivor of those abuses as well as the self-inflicted wounds incurred during twenty-five years of combat in the Rock- ‘n’- Roll wars, manifests all the scars. He is a shell of his former self in the opening scene as he sits in a Cadillac on the showroom floor with Melinda Ledbetter, a pretty saleswoman played by Elizabeth Banks. She doesn’t know who he is. He says he needs a car…this car. But right now he just wants to sit, to think in peace, to enjoy this little sanctuary. Outside, spying, stands his adulthood Satan.

Via the distinctly evil personage of Dr. Eugene Landy, perfectly etched by Paul Giamatti, it becomes eminently clear that whether Brian’s psychoses are the result of environmental forces, a bad batch of DNA or both, he is unfair game for those who would prey on his maladies. Giamatti’s ugly parasite embodies a variation on P.T. Barnum’s adage about suckers and those who would take them. Only in this case there’s an afflicted or distraught person born every minute and two Rasputins to leech off him. We really want to see this guy get his.


It gets, to coin a phrase from the film’s earlier chronology, heavy. Equally strenuous and informing is the depiction of the artist’s agony and ecstasy as he wrestles with the creative process. Brainstorming until we can almost hear his gray matter sizzling, his every sense seeming to reach for otherworldly guidance, he at long last plucks a tune from nowhere…an instantly recognizable group of notes that helped shape the anthem of the times. Still, when he says he needs extra time to compose, a band member chidingly asks, “Who are you, Mozart?”

The coming asunder of the music treasure in question reaches its nadir when, upon threat of being committed to a sanitarium, he agrees to let Dr. Landy, a showbiz gadfly among other pretensions, become his legal guardian and advisor. The control becomes noxiously invasive. We squirm in discomfort, our sense of right and wrong heightened to full red alert. And then, like the cavalry arriving to help battle the enemy, enters stage right the aforementioned Miss Ledbetter. At first simply a romantic interest, she soon sizes up the injustice being perpetrated.

The fight is on and we’ve a rooting interest. But while heartening to know that Mr. Wilson acknowledged the work’s accuracy, it is bittersweet even in its happier moments. Fact is, we have it on good authority that Brian’s pathology and subsequent captivity were sometimes even more bizarre than portrayed in the film, but toned down so as not to appear Hollywoodized. It’s all so sad, which likely narrows the film’s niche interest to ardent Beach Boys/Brian Wilson fans and anyone who wishes a harsh reminder that there are those who need our “Love & Mercy.”

“Love & Mercy,” rated PG-13, is a Roadside Attractions release directed by Bill Pohlad and stars John Cusack, Paul Dano and Elizabeth Banks. Running time: 121 minutes





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