Behind the happiest things in the world – pop music, comedy, you name it – is irreversible pain. By now, we know this. Comedians are often tortured souls, somewhat ironically dark despite their valiant efforts to release joy into the world. Robin Williams fought a long battle with depression. Pop music is full of sad stories, tragedies intricately woven into the joy and disguised from the world. Belle and Sebastian’s catalogue, 50s bobby soxer inspired songs, are ballads of deep anguish hidden behind a front of cute harmonies and upbeat piano riffs. If you’re like me, not familiar with iconic 60s pop outfit The Beach Boys beyond those riffs that have featured in countless films, you’re not going to know the plot of Love & Mercy, another film that looks on the surface to be another behind-the-curtain look at the tortured genius behind those head-bopping tunes. Thankfully, it’s anything but. This directorial debut from maverick producer Bill Pohlad split its time between two points in The Beach Boys frontman Brian Wilson’s life. The first half is in the 1960s, when Wilson (at this point played by Paul Dano) was recording the now incredibly revered album Pet Sounds, getting increasingly experimental as he struggles with emerging schizophrenia. As he sinks further into the recording of the album, which is adored by critics but fails commercially (even though it would find popularity in the future), he is consumed by his work and the pressures placed on him, and continues to spiral into the depths of his illness. Off screen, he slips further into reclusiveness, a period marked by overeating, drug taking, and other self-destrictive behaviour, until he met controversial psychologist Eugene Landy (played by Paul Giamatti) in 1975. But while Landy limited his drug use and approved his physical appearance and health, he used methods such as brainwashing, overmedicating, and isolation, he alienated Wilson (now played by John Cusack) from his family, and resulting in strange behaviour. He’s trapped by a bunch of hangers-on who are profiting off his vulnerability until he meets Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), a Cadillac salesperson who becomes selflessly determined to free him from Landy. Each story unfolds in alternate portions, not a stark contrast to the other as such, but more a natural companion. Unlike many films that split their time and heavy lifting between multiple performers, Love & Mercy does not have a weaker half. Pohlad doesn’t rely on the well-worn device of montages to scramble to weave them together throughout the film, a technique that could have resulted in more of a whirling tangle than an involving journey. Rather, he lets each half breathe by itself before weaving them together in a late montage, which is ultimately one of the film’s less successful moments, but is admittedly a minor flaw in an otherwise transformative journey. The talent involved here is mostly of the well-known, reliable variety, but it still has an absolute surprise and discovery up its sleeve. That little hidden discovery is Elizabeth Banks. As Melinda, Banks embodies the sad but hopeful second narrative. Her role is not overstated. It’s simply seeing a man that is drowning, and the love it takes to pull him out, no more, no less. It’s a performance so in contact with its primal emotional centre that its never anything less than completely involving.

Rating: 4.5/5


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