One Brian Wil­son too many

Jump­ing be­tween Paul Dano and John Cu­sack as Beach Boys leader makes ‘Love & Mercy’ un­even.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - KEN­NETH TU­RAN FILM CRITIC

Wouldn’t it be nice if “Love & Mercy,” the un­even biopic about Beach Boys co­founder Brian Wil­son, was as per­sua­sive as the per­for­mances of the two ac­tors who play him at dif­fer­ent pe­ri­ods of his life?

God only knows that the singer-song­writer’s per­sonal saga is com­pli­cated and ec­cen­tric enough to merit a big-screen treat­ment, but whether go­ing back and forth be­tween Paul Dano and John Cu­sack play­ing the man 20 years apart is a good idea is an­other ques­tion en­tirely.

Both ac­tors, es­pe­cially Dano, do strong work, yet though each of them bears a re­sem­blance to the Beach Boys’ pre­sid­ing ge­nius, they don’t look par­tic­u­larly like each other, which is only one rea­son why this self-con­scious film feels con­vinc­ingly told only part of the time.

Direc­tor Bill Pohlad pushed for the two-Wil­sons-no-wait­ing ap­proach, bring­ing in writer Oren Mover­man (who helped Todd Haynes sliver Bob Dy­lan into six pieces in “I’m Not There”) to re­write Michael Alan Lerner’s script.

Pohlad is a vet­eran pro­ducer but not as ex­peri--

enced as a direc­tor, and the two Brian Wil­sons prob­lem is symp­to­matic of the dif­fi­culty he has had rec­on­cil­ing not just two di­verse story lines but also the dif­fer­ent ap­proaches to film­mak­ing im­plicit in each.

The best, most in­volv­ing sec­tions of “Love & Mercy” take place in the 1960s and star Dano as a bril­liant cre­ator of pop mu­sic (“Good Vi­bra­tions,” the “Pet Sounds” al­bum) un­like any that had been heard be­fore. (Wil­son ap­par­ently agrees: He’s quoted in the press notes as say­ing, “My fa­vorite scenes in the movie are the ones in the stu­dio where I’m pro­duc­ing the record.”)

But even th­ese sec­tions are mud­died by Pohlad’s weak­ness for strained arti­ness, like a shot that ap­par­ently sends a cam­era down, down, down Wil­son’s au­di­tory canal.

Less in­volv­ing are the 1980s scenes, with Cu­sack do­ing as well as he can with the som­no­lent Wil­son, to­tally un­der the thumb of Eu­gene Landy (Paul Gia­matti), his ma­nip­u­la­tive Sven­gali of a ther­a­pist.

Even if you didn’t know that “Love & Mercy” was made with the ex­ten­sive co­op­er­a­tion of Wil­son and his wife, Melinda, you could sense it in the square, au­tho­rized-bi­og­ra­phy way the film con­veys this part of the story, which de­tails how Melinda (El­iz­a­beth Banks) played a key part in res­cu­ing Wil­son from Landy’s clutches. Though the story is true, its san­i­tized feel is off­putting at best.

It’s a para­dox of Wil­son’s saga that out of his trou­bled mind came the mag­nif­i­cently har­monic sound, as un­mis­tak­able as pop mu­sic gets, that pro­pelled the Beach Boys to enor­mous suc­cess with an­thems like “Fun Fun Fun,” “Surfin USA” and “I Get Around.”

Dano, who has man­aged to look and be­have un­can­nily like the 1960s Wil­son, por­trays him as very much the soli­tary ge­nius who is sin­cere and earnest about his work.

His es­pe­cially ef­fec­tive open­ing mo­ment has him sit­ting in front of a pi­ano and mus­ing, “Some­times it scares me to think about where the mu­sic comes from. What if I lose it, what if I never get it back? What would I do then?”

That fear is not the only thing that scares Wil­son. An episode of par­a­lyz­ing fear on an air­plane leads to his re­quest of band mem­bers that they leave him home while they tour Ja­pan.

Up­set that the Bea­tles have pushed pop mu­sic’s bound­aries with “Rub­ber Soul,” he in­sists, “I can’t let them get ahead of us. I can take us fur­ther.”

The work Wil­son does in the stu­dio record­ing the ground­break­ing but un­com­mer­cial “Pet Sounds” with the ace mu­si­cians known as the Wreck­ing Crew (Teresa Cowles is cast as a dead ringer for bassist Carol Kaye) is one of “Love & Mercy’s” most in­volv­ing se­quences. Later, when he cre­ates “Good Vi­bra­tions” to his ex­act spec­i­fi­ca­tions, we see the be­gin­nings of the ob­ses­sive­ness that proves to be a prob­lem.

We also get to see Wil­son’s frac­tured and toxic re­la­tion­ship with fa­ther and one­time Beach Boys manager Murry (Bill Camp), por­trayed as an abu­sive and ag­grieved bully whom Wil­son kept try­ing to please, per­haps es­tab­lish­ing the pat­tern for his later re­la­tion­ship with ther­a­pist Landy.

Though Wil­son and Melinda meet-cute at a Cadil­lac deal­er­ship where she is a crack sales­woman, the 1980s se­quences of “Love & Mercy” are less in­ter­est­ing to watch than the ear­lier sec­tions. Wil­son is so un­der the thumb of the in­tru­sive, con­trol­ling Landy and Melinda is such a sure-to-suc­ceed white knight that their bat­tles, even one over a con­tainer of take­out matzo ball soup, lack the tex­ture of re­al­ity even if they ac­tu­ally hap­pened. Pohlad did not lack for ideas about how he wanted to por­tray Brian Wil­son’s life, but he is with­out the where­withal to ef­fec­tively put them into prac­tice.

Fran­cois Duhamel Road­side At­trac­tions

PAUL DANO por­trays Brian Wil­son in the 1960s, when the Beach Boys co­founder was in his cre­ative hey­day. John Cu­sack plays Wil­son in the 1980s.

Fran­cois Duhamel Road­side At­trac­tions

MELINDA (EL­IZ­A­BETH BANKS)

res­cues Brian Wil­son (John Cu­sack) from the sway of a ther­a­pist.

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