Some movies do an amazing job matching the younger actor playing the same role as the older actor, to the point where it’s no stretch of the imagination to see them as the same person (see “The Imitation Game”), but “Love and Mercy,” a biopic of Beach Boy Brian Wilson isn’t one. Brian Past is played by Paul Dano during the band’s golden years, and Brian Future is played by John Cusack in the eighties, when he’s trying to make a solo comeback but hindered by his psychiatrist (Paul Giamatti). (There’s also a “Brian Present” character to make things more confusing, but he doesn’t come into the story much.) Each time the narrative switched, I found myself thinking that along to gaining and losing quite a bit of weight over the years, Brian might possibly also have gotten plastic surgery. But each actor does a credible job of interpreting the character, and if Cusack doesn’t look much like Young Brian, he does bring the tortured aspect out in full force. It’s easy to assume before hearing the backstory that this is someone who has suffered serious emotional torment.
“Love and Mercy” opens with a shot of Paul Dano alone in the midst of composing. “What if I lose it and can’t get it back? What do I do then?” he muses. He does have his bandmates and brothers to buoy him up, but he still has to contend with his father (Bill Camp), who is bitter that he has been fired as the band’s manager and lurks on the edges of things attempting to detonate Brian’s self-esteem. This has more severe consequences than it does with other sons because the singer is starting to hear voices and have panic attacks. Young Brian is also struggling with the fact that although he wants to move on and create less pop-happy music, the rest of the band feels it’s necessary to say, have a few potential hit singles on their next record so they can, you know, sell records at the same volume as they have been. But unlike so many “tortured geniuses” portrayed on screen, he’s a decent human being overall, despite the quirky outbursts, so although he has moments of selfishness, he isn’t someone you wind up loving to hate.
Twenty years and some pounds later, we see the Future Brian at a dealership buying a new car from Elizabeth Banks who has to be one of the most glamorous car salespeople ever played on screen, though the movie dealership is always curiously empty. Hanging around is a guy described as a bodyguard, as well as a strange man who introduces himself as “Brian’s brother by another father,” and turns out to be his shrink (Paul Giamatti), who has anger management issues that may be more unhealthy than any “psychosis” of Brian’s. (If the combined presence of Camp and Giamatti doesn’t terrify you, you are much braver than me.) Paul and his entourage insist on following their charge around 24-7, which puts a crimp on his burgeoning intimacy with Elizabeth. Eventually, (spoiler alert), they get rid of the shrink, and life gets much better.
As mentioned, there’s a big gap in Brian’s history, which included a breakdown period, but is alluded to by Cusack’s character, but the two time periods focused on are so interesting it doesn’t really matter. The early one shows the bond between Brian and the other bandmates (which eventually becomes strained) and the re-creation of several of the band’s hits. The later one depicts how hard it can be to break free of an abusive relationship (particularly when the person threatens legal action if you leave). An afterword reports that the real Brian’s mental health did improve dramatically after firing the shrink and getting re-diagnosed (and winning Grammys couldn’t have hurt either), so there’s a real life happy ending.