Our year has thus far provided an embarrassment of riches for fans of the biopic. And good for them! Me as well, as normally I would skip most biopics, but this year, soldiering on in the name of variety rather than cherry-picking, I have been exposed to many a chronicle of lived reality. Thankfully, they have been worthy of consideration, not a mediocrity among them. At first glance, Love and Mercy seems an oddity, as it scopes out a life that, while worthy of consideration, has not pressed itself upon us of late with its necessity. I hope we can all agree that Brian Wilson is a musical genius, and not in need of rehabilitation or, as the credits to this film suggest, publicity. The film does not labor extensively to prove his mettle, nor does it serve as a hit parade except in the most minor of ways. Indeed, the film feels slight in scope; really, though, it is simply a focused, fairly quiet and gentle film, which, like Mr. Wilson, might have its humility mistaken for lightness. The movie focuses on two Brian Wilsons, without feeling the need to tie the two together, or make any heavy causative moves connecting one to the other. The majority of the film is dedicated to portraying a particularly unglamorous, and perhaps even undramatic, time in Wilson’s life, during which he was under the control, mentally and, it seems, legally, of one Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), a squat, paunchy Svengali with a temper and a weird haircut. This Brian (John Cusack) is far beyond his heyday, and while still creative, spends much of his time battling his demons with no particular help from the doc, whose therapeutic techniques were developed at the school of fighting fire with gasoline. We have a feeling the good doctor is shady, but we are unsure, as we don’t know Wilson enough to tell if he’s as bad off as the doctor says he is. Wilson certainly doesn’t disagree with him, so how would we know? Enter one Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), a Cadillac saleswomen and soon to be girlfriend of Mr. Wilson, who is our cinematic avatar within the weird world of So-Cal post-fame. She meets Wilson while he is shopping for a car, and despite the ever-looming presence of Dr. Feelbad, manages some alone time with him while they proceed to date. The tale of how she manages to liberate him from the constraints of not only the doctor, but of his own inner demons, comprises the main narrative thread. The film often cuts back in time, portraying a younger Brian Wilson (Paul Dano) in the period of his ascendancy, slightly before Pet Sounds until slightly after Good Vibrations and the aborted release of Smile. The film smartly does not attempt to explain the more recent Wilson with reference to the past one; even better, it does not use the past Wilson as a vehicle for mindless genius worship or the petty psychology we often get in such films. Instead, this past tale serves as a primer on Wilson, not just for the uninitiated (although for them too) but by way of showing where his particular problems began as counterpoint to where he winds up. This past thread also has the purpose of explicating his particular type of creativity, showing it in full force and also portraying the kinds of problems, social and not just mental, that resulted from his unique talents. There is not much suspense involved – really, the only question the film asks, narratively, is whether old Wilson will get the girl, be free of the evil doctor, and live happily ever after.
What is refreshing about the film, aside from its lack of pretensions, is that it places Melinda Ledbetter front and center, not only as our way into this world, but as the reason for, and star of, this film. Just as much as this is a portrait of Brian Wilson, it is a picture of romantic love that we don’t get much in popular culture these days. Melinda is not a particular fan of Brian’s work, nor the handmaiden dedicated to renewing his genius; we get the feeling that she cares about his abilities only insofar as they are part of who he is. She is not his foil, nor his steadfast, loyal support (although she is that as well); she is partly his savior, but only insofar as anyone who cared about him deeply might be. She is, in fact, not extraordinary in any way (okay, she does look like Elizabeth Banks), but simply a woman who, although in love, is mature enough to realize it might not work out. At the same time, what she cannot abide is leaving someone in a bad place when she has the power to help them out. And she does help him out, aiding him not just because she loves him, but because Landy is a blot that needs to be wiped out. Thus, she is a powerful woman who is also an everyday person, and by the end, we feel like this film is Wilson’s love letter to her. The great thing is that her power is not represented as a contrast to Wilson’s “weakness.” A strong aspect of the film is its suggestion that what made Wilson a sonic innovator also made him inclined to social maladaptation. Indeed, the sonic landscape of this film is its strongest suit; the sound design is subtle and incisive, with great secondary music as well as sculpted collages of Wilson’s output that provide portraiture of his interiority. The scene where Wilson loses it at a dinner party, unable to stop himself from obsessively focusing on the continual clatter of cutlery against china, is a great example of the melding of genius and madness. In most films, the clatter would build increasingly, perhaps underscored by the menacing thrumb of some ascending bass strings; here, however, we share in Wilson’s vision, as the clatter is musical, fascinating and unnerving. It gives us insight into Wilson’s musical interior, and also humanizes him, all by performing his reality for us. Partly due to Cusack’s strong performance (his best in ages), partly due to Banks, and partly to the script, we never feel that Wilson’s weirdness is particularly weird; there are no rote sequences of Melinda being shocked by Brian, of having to get over his quirks, or being put off by his manner in any way. This is a film about real people, not stereotypes, and while the ending is typically happy, it feels earned. Sometimes the universe does send the person you need at just the time you need them. Sometimes it helps to be a one-of-a-kind genius, too.