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'Love & Mercy' Is A Dysrhythmic Biopic Of A Master Of Rhythm

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Courtesy River Road Entertainment
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John Cusak as the future Brian Wilson and Elizabeth Banks as Melinda Ledbetter in 'Love & Mercy.'

As East Coast kids in the early '60s, my friends and I mocked The Beach Boys because they stood for what we thought was vapid and stupid about California. They wore silly vertical striped shirts. They sang about cars and surfing and vacant-eyed play like "she'll have fun, fun, fun/ Till her daddy takes the T-Bird away." We were listening to The Beatles, Bob Dylan and Dave van Ronk, and thinking about important stuff like politics and civil rights, so who would waste their time with California banality?

Love & Mercy smacks those prejudices head on.

For a couple of minutes the picture shows home movies of surfers in the smeary blue-greens of 1960s Super-8 color film. They stand by their woodies with their long boards and clown for the camera.

That stuff doesn't last. Pretty soon, you're into the tortured life of Brian Wilson, the spirit and musical brains of The Beach Boys. The movie alternates between the high times The Beach Boys had when they were a pop music sensation and the late 1980s and early '90s, when Wilson was wracked by serious mental illness and in the clutches of a lunatic doctor named Eugene Landy. Actor Paul Giamatti makes Landy domineering and terrifying, with the crazed certainty of a malicious guru latched onto a cash cow.

One of the writers, Oren Moverman, worked on I'm Not There, the film about Bob Dylan with six different actors playing Dylan. Here there are only two; Paul Dano plays the younger Brian Wilson and John Cusack the older one.

The California cliches don't go away, but Bill Pohlad, the director, turns them. When he's still in the thrall of Eugene Landy, Wilson buys a Cadillac from a saleswoman, Melinda (Elizabeth Banks), a California bleached-blonde barely past her prime, with gleaming white teeth and a big gold necklace. You take her for that girl who lost her T-Bird, except that she's smart and caring and brave – she's the one who finally saves Brian by getting him away from Landy.

Like Melinda, most of Love & Mercy itself looks overly bright and cheery. There's constant sunshine and a luminous ocean, and interiors are sharp, spare, white and very California chic.

Those spaces contain the anguish and despair of Brian Wilson's struggle to escape his demons.

What carries the movie is John Cusack's work as the older Brian Wilson. It's the performance of Cusack's career, so far. He makes his face sallow and joyless. He looks distracted, like a guy who fights to reclaim the meaning of even the smallest minor objects in his life. His eyes wander from Melinda because he's lost the ability to connect, and as if inside this guy is musical genius that he can't always express. Pohlad catches the shape of Cusack's head from an angle that makes Wilson look like even his skull has gone flaccid.

Love & Mercy is a deliberately dysrhythmic film about a master of rhythm and harmony. It doesn't glide between its present and its past; it lurches. The picture of Wilson's profound mental illness comes across as unkempt, genuine and courageous. He's locked into his misery, with no easy fix for this lost and afflicted man.

Love & Mercy is not a Hollywood musical biopic with the musician emerging after his trials bruised but again successful – it makes the struggle, not the triumph, the center of things. It's not all OK at the end; it's just better than it was. A man of great talent has regained himself – with a lot of help and with no assurance that it will last.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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