Love & Mercy is a bad film made with the best of intentions.
It has been championed by various critics and has its fair share of blurb-ready accolades, but, with all due respect, those people are mistaken. To its great credit, however, it provides an opportunity to examine exactly why the biopic is such a toxic, unpleasant, and inherently ridiculous affair.
Love & Mercy is about Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys, and its running time is pretty evenly divided between the recording of the band’s (arguably) pivotal record Pet Sounds and Wilson’s sad later life, after his manipulation by those close to him and his own mental illness extracted a terrible toll. Director Bill Pohlad and writers Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner hope to find some meaning in the disparity between the two, and the downward slide that unites them.
They do not succeed.
Instead, they lay out ways not to make a biopic. Here are five.
- Assume your audience is deeply invested in your subject
You simply cannot enjoy Love & Mercy if you do not enjoy the music. The filmmakers’ do a good job of showcasing the act of musical creation during the Paul Dano segments, but this can only take you so far. There’s an assumption that John Cusack, as the older Brian Wilson, is inherently tragic, but this presumes you know the story and care about the Beach Boys. Otherwise, Cusack’s just some twitchy dude who maybe used to surf. Emotional investment shouldn’t be a given.
- Split your narrative between a compelling young actor and a sad old man
Many of the film’s boosters seem to enjoy the fact that the narrative leap-frogs back and forth between young Paul Dano in the studio and in love, and old John Cusack hiding out at home, being a shadow of his old self. I found it distracting. In fact, each individual plotline made me wish we were back with the other guys; then we got there, and I remembered that also sucked. It’s not the kind of thing you want to call attention to.
- Include on-the-nose musical cues, especially in a film about music
Paul Dano soldiers on heroically through this movie, which is far beneath him, but not even he can carry the scene in which he writes “God Only Knows.” Pohlad’s montage is embarrassing, and we are so aware of the fact that we are watching a movie. It begs for Tom Servo to crack a joke. (To be fair, the sound design itself is one of the film’s most recommendable features. It sounds great, even as it insults you.)
- If you can, find a way to state the point of a scene in the most expository way possible
I admit, I was already tending towards officially dissatisfied with this film by the time the band went swimming, but even at this point, I was unprepared for the silliness. Brian Wilson, genius, is in the deep end; the rest of the band, sub-genius, are not. He beckons them to come out. Someone says, “We can’t go in the deep end, Brian. I guess we’re too shallow.” It was at this point I started to hate Love & Mercy.
- If you can find one tyrannical father figure, surely you can find two
The Wilson kids’ early life is characterized by their exploitative father, and Brian’s later life is circumscribed by the weirdness of his diabolical manager cum guardian Dr. Eugene Landy, played by Paul Giamatti in a predictably impressive performance (with a head of hair that is as striking as his awfulness). That is interesting, and speaks to the ways Wilson engages with the world. There’s a whole story there, waiting to be told. This movie does not really tell that story, any more than this paragraph did. It’s a bummer.
Brian Wilson is a fascinating person, and deserves something better than this business – something that takes into account the times, the context, the rivalries, the mania. There are flashes in Love & Mercy when it seems like a different movie might be taking hold, but it never does. It’s not enough to jump between promising youth and paranoid adulthood, and occasionally play a catchy tune. You have to give people a reason to care. Love & Mercy never does, and it feels like a squandered opportunity.