The Brian Wilson biopic “Love and Mercy” is as wily and loose-limbed as the man himself, a dreamy and delirious ode to the troubled genius behind The Beach Boys.
Director Bill Pohlad and writers Michael A. Lerner and Oren Moverman twist the genre by paralleling Wilson’s disorderly heyday with his eventual nervous breakdown and subsequent Stockholm syndrome-like relationship with the dubious Dr. Eugene Landy. Paul Dano plays the spacey, slowly frittering ’60s Wilson — as he was just starting to go solo and dip his toes in the world of orchestral pop — while Cusack plays 1980s Wilson, who was suffering creatively and wrestling with paranoid schizophrenia. Dano and Cusack’s beautiful performances draw you into Wilson’s inner world with the support of Elizabeth Banks as Melinda Ledbetter, the sparky Cadillac saleswoman who steps into his life to save it (and went on to become his current wife).
1. It’s no ordinary biopic. A handful of critics were in raptures over the film’s Toronto premiere last Fall with The Hollywood Reporter calling it “a deeply satisfying pop biopic whose subject’s bifurcated creative life lends itself to an unconventional structure.” The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday named “Love and Mercy” her favorite film of the fest. Variety called it “a vibrant cure for the common musical biopic” (it helps that the film contains many beloved Wilson tunes). When the film opens this Summer, critics should continue to admire the film’s unconventionality and form-busting structure. Even at its melodramatic turns, and there are a few involving Paul Giamatti’s showiest performance yet as grubby sad sack Dr. Landy, “Love and Mercy” manages to be moving and tender and true to the story of Brian Wilson, who endorses the film and came along for its recent SXSW showings.
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2. Paul Dano and John Cusack deliver career-topping performances. Critically adored and hardworking, Cusack has never been Oscar-nominated, despite numerous accolades for indies “Being John Malkovich” and “High Fidelity.” As the elder Brian Wilson, Cusack is utterly heartbreaking. Dano, terrifically deranged in “There Will Be Blood” and “Prisoners,” also shines as young and troubled Wilson, gaining a bit of a paunch for the role and tapping into his soft side.
3. The film makes a dramatic star of Elizabeth Banks. Emmy-nominated twice for her guest role on “30 Rock,” Banks has made her name in comedy. Here she shows off her dramatic chops as Wilson’s sweet-faced love interest. Yes, she gets to wear a lot of fabulous outfits, but the script gives her plenty more to do as she becomes the catalyst in rescuing Wilson from himself and from his psychiatrist’s abusive care. “Love and Mercy” ends up being as much about her and the bumpy origins of her marriage to Wilson as it is about him.
4. Bill Pohlad, who directs his first feature in 25 years, produced critical and audience successes “The Tree of Life,” “12 Years a Slave” and more. Pohlad helmed the film “Old Explorers” in 1990 but since then has stuck to financing and producing, yielding such prestigious Oscar nominees and winners as “The Tree of Life,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Brokeback Mountain,” “Wild” and “Into the Wild,” as well as Robert Altman’s farewell film “A Prairie Home Companion.”
“Love and Mercy”‘s gently unspooling editing takes cues from Terrence Malick, who accompanied the film’s SXSW premiere. Pohlad also produced the warmly received Richard Gere starrer “Time Out of Mind,” directed by “Love and Mercy” co-writer Oren Moverman and coming from IFC later this year.
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5. The film could boost Roadside’s awards profile. Roadside Attractions has awards season marketing chops (see “Winter’s Bone,” “Biutiful,” “Albert Nobbs” and documentary feature win “The Cove”) but only scored a lonely Sound Editing Oscar-nomination for well-reviewed 2013 Robert Redford festival hit “All Is Lost,” which despite Redford’s protestations, did as well as anyone could have expected given its solo sailing protagonist.
This year, there were inklings of hope that Hilary Swank could crack the Best Actress five for Roadside and Saban Films’ “The Homesman.” Alas, despite some fervent critics, no dice. However, Roadside pickup “Dear White People” did score kudos at the 2015 Independent Spirits and 2014 Sundance Film Festival as well as the box office. But, disappointingly this year, Canadian Xavier Dolan’s tough sit “Mommy” didn’t make the foreign Oscar shortlist.
While “Love and Mercy”‘s June 5 opening does not portend an obvious awards candidate, an early release did not hurt Fox Searchlight’s Oscar contender “The Grand Budapest Hotel” last year. Other Roadside films could wind up in the awards discussion, including critics’ fave “’71,” from hot director Yann Demange, an historical drama with rising star Jack O’Connell. Coming down the pike are Ian McKellen starrer “Mr. Holmes” from awakening co-distributor Miramax, and Roadside’s just-announced pickup “Stonewall,” Roland Emmerich’s telling of the 1969 Stonewall Riots that busted open the door for gay rights.