As I covered in my review of Ex Machina, a movie’s release date means something, so you might expect Love & Mercy, a movie partially about the recording of The Beach Boys’ most lauded album, Pet Sounds, to be a cinematic, seashore getaway, all surf, sun, and sand, babes in bikinis, a little family drama, sure, but mostly a fun romp beneath gently swaying California palms. People expected the same of that famous Beach Boys album, Pet Sounds. Instead, they found an introspective album that lamented lost love, confessed our shared need for other people, voiced the existential pain inherent in existence, and appealed to God for relief. The Beach Boys’ songs had always been the epitome of a fun distraction. Pet Sounds was surprisingly deeper.
Plopped in the middle of the summer movie season and buffeted by superheroes and dinosaurs, Love & Mercy is a similar surprise. The movie is about the recording of Pet Sounds, but the movie includes that famous recording process as an aspect of Beach Boy Brian Wilson’s life story. Love & Mercy is about Brian as a boy and as a man dealing with auditory hallucinations and depression. The film is, indeed, the typical genius-artist biopic about a person whose abusive past and personal demons fuel their creative outputs, but it is also something more, because it is the rare genius-artist biopic with a happy ending. Love & Mercy knows the way out of the darkness. (Hint: It was there in Pet Sounds all along, and it’s in the movie’s title.)
The movie is held up by four strong performances. Paul Dano and John Cusack both play Brian Wilson at different points in his life, Paul Giamatti plays the (now nefarious) extreme psychologist Dr. Eugene Landy, and Elizabeth Banks plays Melinda Ledbetter, the former model and car salesperson with whom Wilson falls in love and who helps him escape Dr. Landy’s clutches. Paul Dano somehow plays John Cusack playing Brian Wilson, and John Cusack somehow plays Paul Dano playing Brian Wilson in a way that makes the three men morph into one person. It’s really something to see. And though their story beats are kind of melodramatic, Banks and Giamatti bring exactly what’s needed to their characters—Banks, subtly, Giamatti, ferociousness—to elevate the film beyond becoming a mere curiosity with a great dual-imitation at its core. This is a true story, and Banks especially makes it feel true.
I don’t want to give too much away about the ending. I’ll try to dance around it, but if you’re intrigued by the film already and don’t want to risk having anything spoiled, you might want to stop reading now.
In its resolution, Love & Mercy borrows from 2001: A Space Odyssey in a way that most movies do not. Most films reference 2001’s special effects. Love & Mercy references one of 2001’s many messages – that the only way to evolve is to meet and make peace with your past and future selves. As President Barack Obama put it in a recent interview with Marc Maron, “Stuff that was bugging you [at 20], by the time you’re 53, either you’ve worked it out, or you’ve just forgiven yourself and you’ve said, ‘Look. This is who I am.’” It’s simple yet wise, this idea of forgiving yourself. As Jesus said, we’re supposed to love our neighbors in the way that we love ourselves, and that at least implies that we ought to be loving ourselves, which, as Jesus modeled, includes practicing forgiveness of ourselves so that we can forgive others as well.
Another moment near the end of Love & Mercy suggests that sometimes, when you try to go back to the time in your life that has long haunted you, you find that it’s not there anymore. The only place where it exists is in you. You can only live there in your mind. Getting free requires recognizing that the place has already been razed by time. If we’re going to keep being tortured by the past, it’s because we choose to be, and we can just as easily choose to move on.
In the end, Love & Mercy, like its subject, Brian Wilson, is a much more spiritual film than its tortured-artist-genius plot and principal subject—The Beach Boys—suggests. Love & Mercy isn’t just about depression and mania. It’s about how to be healed from them. It’s about where that healing comes from and how we might all tap into those good vibrations.
Sorry. I couldn’t resist including at least one Beach Boys pun. I hope you’ll forgive me. I’ve already forgiven myself.
You might also find this review of Love & Mercy helpful: