Love and Mercy


Brian Wilson, just chillin'.

Brian Wilson, just chillin’.

(2014) Biographical Drama (Roadside Attractions) John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti, Jake Abel, Kenny Wormald, Joanna Going, Dee Wallace, Max Schneider, Graham Rogers, Nikki Wright, Tyson Ritter, Brett Davern, Erin Darke, Diana Maria Riva, Bill Camp, Johnny Sneed, Claudia Graf, Tonja Kahlens, Carolyn Stotesbery. Directed by Bill Pohlad

The word “genius” is often thrown about the media like a demented Frisbee, landing on both the deserving and the undeserving. Of the former category, one would have to include Brian Wilson, the man behind the Beach Boys sound. Those unfamiliar with popular music who think of the Beach Boys as the band solely of “California Girls” and “Surfing USA” clearly missed some of the great music of the era, exemplified with “Good Vibrations,” “Heroes and Villains” and “God Only Knows.”

Wilson, like many authentic geniuses, was tormented throughout most of his life. As a young man (Dano) when he was churning out hit after hit for the Beach Boys, his tyrannical and emotionally abusive father Murray (Camp), himself a frustrated former musician belittled his son’s accomplishments, especially after the band fired him as their manager. “In five years, nobody will remember you,” he sneers at one point, “Nobody will remember the Beach Boys.” Clearly, he was wrong.

However, Brian’s insecurities blossomed into full-fledged paranoia, exacerbated by drug abuse. The pressures of creating not only great music but music that sells began to take its toll not just on Brian but also within the band; Mike Love (Abel), the band’s lead vocalist, resisted change vigorously, wishing to stay with a tried and true formula, even though as Brian foresaw, musical tastes were changing rapidly and the Beach Boys were just as rapidly becoming irrelevant. Brian’s marriage to wife Marilyn (Darke) disintegrated and as his mental health deteriorated, he would enter a period of reclusiveness (rarely leaving his bed) and morbid weight gain, at one time clocking in at well over 300 pounds. Drug-addled and plagued by erratic behavior, his family worried for his health and sanity.

In the 1980s he came under the care of radical therapist Eugene Landy (Giamatti) who became his legal guardian. Landy separated Brian from his brothers and mother (his father had passed away in 1973) and essentially oversaw every facet of his life, making decisions for him. Brian at this time (Cusack) was a shell of a man, functioning but just barely so. During this period he met the beautiful blonde ex-model Melinda Ledbetter (Banks) at a Cadillac agency where she sold cars. The two hit it off and began dating, under the strict supervision of Landy who eventually made the couple separate. Ledbetter, concerned about Brian’s worsening condition, fought for and achieved Landy’s removal. She would eventually marry Brian and the two remain a couple today.

Pohlad has more experience as a producer than as a director, although he has been associated with Terrence Malick somewhat of late and that approach has served him well here, refusing to take the route of standard musical biopics and instead takes the more fragmented approach of the Todd Bridges Dylan bio I’m Not There which may have as much to do with employing that film’s writer Oren Moverman as writer here.

One thing (of many) Pohlad did right was the casting. Dano is a near-perfect choice for the young Brian, capturing both his fragile emotional state and his absolute mastery in the studio. The real Brian Wilson’s experiments with psychotropic drugs would lead him to auditory hallucinations that he still suffers from today; not only does Pohlad really give us a sense of what Brian was hearing (with snippets of classic Beach Boys riffs in amazing mash-ups by film composer Atticus Ross) but Dano sells it, showing Brian’s fascination and occasional frustration with the music he couldn’t escape even if he wanted to. We see how tormented he was outside the studio and how happy he was in it; as Brian and his bandmates gather around the microphone to sing the harmonies that justifiably made them famous, only then does Dano’s Brian Wilson look truly happy.

As the middle-aged Bryan, Cusack turns in one of the best performances of his career – and as many of you might know, I’m a big fan of Cusack so that’s saying something. The older Brian is a completely different person than the younger one, although they have much in common – which is what inspired Pohlad to cast two actors who don’t really resemble each other to play him. This Brian is damaged goods, completely dominated and cowed by the powerful personality of Landy who exudes cult-like control over the musician. Cusack resists the temptation to make Wilson a collection of tics and neuroses; he seems like a fairly normal guy until you spend a goodly amount of time with him.

Giamatti may well be the best villain of the summer; he plays Landy as a controlling tyrant with a terrible temper. He seems nice enough and compassionate at first glance but soon the sadistic side shows through the cracks. Giamatti imbues Landy with enough soft-voiced charm to make him seem like a coiled snake, able to strike at any moment. It’s a compelling performance that if this were released in the fall might be getting some serious Supporting Actor buzz. He might anyway.

Banks gets short shrift here because the other performances are so strong, but that doesn’t mean she’s a slouch. In fact, although at first Melinda seems like essentially just a pretty face, we get to see the core of steel inside her as the movie progresses. The one false note lies in the writing; I think that it would be natural for others to think Melinda is a gold digger – Landy brings it up near the end of the movie. However, it really isn’t addressed in the movie, how others other than Brian and Landy are reacting to her. I would have liked to see what the perception of her was among the Wilson family, although to be fair it’s likely that Brian upon whose recollections the movie is based may not have known.

Pohlad tries to give us a sense of what Brian was experiencing, using sound and lighting effects to give us a sense of his torment. I heard that some moviegoers walked out during one of these sequences at a screening attended by one of my friends. I didn’t find them especially offensive, but clearly some did for whatever reason.

Having seen the documentary The Wrecking Crew recently and knowing that  they were involved with recording the Beach Boys music in the studio gave me an extra perspective into the film. I’m not saying it’s required viewing prior to watching Love & Mercy but it certainly is an advantage.

This is definitely one of the best movies to arrive so far this year. Incendiary performances, imaginative storytelling, terrific music and insight into not so much the music that Brian Wilson created but the mental illness that may or may not have gone hand in hand with it.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances all around. Captures both eras nicely. Of course, the music.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the scenes depicting Wilson’s mental issues may be confusing or even disturbing to some.
FAMILY VALUES: Definitely some adult themes, depictions of drug use and a fair amount of swearing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the studio scenes in which Brian and the Beach Boys are recording Pet Sounds were filmed in the actual studios where the iconic album was recorded. Most of the Wrecking Crew were portrayed by Brian Wilson’s current band and Dano used actual studio recordings to stop the band and instruct the musicians as to what he wanted.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/8/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I’m Not There
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: Time Lapse

Advertisements

Big Night


Brothers squabble while their women patiently endure.

Brothers squabble while their women patiently endure.

(1996) Dramedy (Goldwyn) Stanley Tucci, Tony Shalhoub, Minnie Driver, Ian Holm, Campbell Scott, Isabella Rossellini, Allison Janney, Susan Floyd, Marc Anthony, Liev Schreiber, Pasquale Cajano, Gene Canfield, Andre Belgrader, Caroline Aaron, Larry Block, Peter McRobbie, Peter Appel, Karen Shallo, Robert W. Castle, Tamar Kotoske, Alaveta Guess, Dina Spybey. Directed by Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci

Films For Foodies

A good movie can make you care about the story or the characters. A very good movie can make you care about both. A great movie will make you feel you lived in the story with those characters and want to then revisit that movie again and again. Big Night is just such a movie.

In the late 50s, a pair of brothers recently come to America from their native Italy have opened an Italian restaurant on the Jersey shore. Called Paradise, the brothers intended for the restaurant to stand out from the mamma mia spaghetti and meatball joints that were what passed for Italian in that era, like the huge successful restaurant down the street from theirs that was run by Pascal (Holm).

The brothers divided their labors thusly; Primo (Shalhoub), the eldest, ran the kitchen and he was a culinary genius before we knew such things existed. He made an astounding risotto but all anyone ever wanted was – you guessed it – spaghetti and meatballs. When one somewhat ignorant customer (Aaron) asks for a side of spaghetti and meatballs with her risotto, Primo nearly hits the roof. “How about I give her a side of mashed potatoes with that,” he explodes, nearly refusing to give the customer a starch to go with her starch.

Secondo (Tucci), the younger, runs front of house and the business side of things and only he knows what desperate straits the restaurant is in. Behind in their mortgage payments, the bank is about to foreclose. He argues with his brother on his rigid high standards but deep down, he supports them because that is the kind of restaurant he dreams of running.

Their love lives aren’t in much better shape. Primo has a thing for the local florist (Janney) but is far too shy to tell her how he feels. Secondo has a girlfriend, the ever-patient Phyllis (Driver) who waits for him to propose but is losing that patience rapidly. He also has a mistress, the straight-shooting and sexy Gabriella (Rossellini) who is also Pascal’s mistress. She gets around.

Secondo approaches Pascal about a loan which the penurious Pascal is loathe to do, but he will do the brothers a solid – it so happens that famed Italian crooner Louis Prima and his band are going to be in town the following week. He happens to know Louis and will invite him and his band to a dinner at Paradise. The accompanying press and notices may be what’s needed to save the Paradise.

Secondo and Primo set to preparing the restaurant for the biggest night of their lives. With Phyllis helping out as well as their put-upon kitchen boy Cristiano (Anthony), it promises to be a night to remember but will Primo’s stubbornness and Secondo’s love life torpedo everything the brothers have worked for and drive an irreparable wedge between them? Either way, you know that the meal that they serve on this big night will be one that will be absolutely unforgettable.

Tucci, who co-directed and co-wrote the movie in addition to co-starring in it, was just beginning to get his career going when this was made. He has since become one of Hollywood’s busiest actors with a variety of roles in which he mostly plays oily slimeballs. In fact, writing this movie was an effort to write a part for himself that wasn’t the sort he usually got cast in. In fact, there are plenty of well-known names and faces in this movie who were just starting their careers out. Schreiber has a blink and you’ll miss it role as the doorman at Pascal’s joint, while Driver was a year away from her breakout roles in Good Will Hunting and Grosse Pointe Blank.

You become entwined in the story of the struggling restaurant and the sibling squabbling that goes on will feel familiar to anyone who has a brother or a sister. So will the struggles of the brothers appeal to anyone who has ever owned or worked in a small business. In fact, all of the characters have something about them that will speak to you; they may not necessarily be someone you know but there will be something familiar nonetheless…in many ways Primo and Secondo are the brothers I never had.

This is one of those movies that will get under your skin and stay there; you’ll want to see it more than once. Sadly, the home video edition has no extra features other than the original trailer. I’d love to see interviews with the cast now nearly 20 years after the fact about this great little movie that stands the test of time. Even so, the movie is well worth getting. Just don’t be surprised if you don’t get an inescapable craving for Italian food by the time it ends.

WHY RENT THIS: Well-written with terrific performances throughout. Captures ambience and era perfectly.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit ambiguous on the ending.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is quite a bit of rough language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was shot over a period of just 35 days. Tucci and Shalhoub would work together many times following this film, including in the film The Imposters as well as on Shalhoub’s hit TV show Monk.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $12.0M on a $4.1M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Moonstruck

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Films for Foodies continues!