“Love and Mercy”– Mostly “Good Vibrations”



If you remember the 1960’s classic album “Pet Sounds” by Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, there is a good chance you will enjoy the movie “Love and Mercy”.

In an unusual music biopic of Brian Wilson, “Love and Mercy” structures his life through two highly acclaimed actors, Paul Dano and John Cusack, playing Brian the younger and middle-aged Brian respectively. In a highly innovative flashback structure in which Paul Dano plays twenty-something Brian Wilson and John Cusack plays his fifty-something 1980’s version, we see the backstory of a creative musical genius whose abusive childhood and adult life results in the destructive behavior of his middle-age. Based on Brian Wilson’s biography, “Love and Mercy’ tells the horrific tale of a pioneering musician and the wounds which seemed never to heal.

But tragic childhood can have moments of redemption and hope. “Love and Mercy” has both, with the introduction of Melinda Ledbetter (played beautifully by Elizabeth Banks). Love and Mercy

Brian (Dano): “I would listen to those harmonies. I would teach them to my brothers and we’d all sing. …How about you, Melinda? Why don’t you have a boyfriend?”

Melinda Ledbetter (Banks): “He broke my heart.”

Brian: “He shouldn’t have done that.”

Melinda: “I shouldn’t have let him.”

And that dialog foreshadows one of the major motifs in “Love and Mercy”. Those closest to Brian let Landy, a tyrannical therapist use and abuse him, just as Brian’s father had. Paul Giamatti delivers a gripping performance as Landy reminding this viewer of JK Simmons in “Whiplash”.

And, the music! Absolutely essential to evoking the time period as well as the genius that is Brian Wilson. For those who do not know music theory well, “Love and Mercy” also provides just enough of a hint of why Wilson is considered one of the music greats. He develops bold new orchestrations and arrangements, new sound textures in an analog era that, to those listening today, are taken for granted as marking the standard for the sixties and seventies. His choral harmony, falsetto voice, and instrumentations were the most innovative of his time. Even the Beatles borrowed from him. Understanding his revolutionary compositions and inventiveness in his music recordings (for example, by separating vocal tracks from instrumentals)  is to appreciate when Brian’s mind was most stable, when he was most himself. His unbounded enthusiasm, however,  was also indistinguishable, at times, from desperation.

“Love and Mercy” has some glaring flaws too, especially if the viewer has some awareness of the trials and tribulations of Brian’s life. In portraying the two lives of Brian Wilson (pre-fame and post-fame), “Love and Mercy” sometimes loses momentum, with incomplete scenes suggesting a much bigger story that is left without important detail. This viewer was left with questions: Why didn’t Brian Wilson’s family, who were sometimes jealous and manipulative themselves, intervene when Landy was blatantly abusing him? What happened to the courageous maid Gloria who risked deportation to help? Who finally brought the legal challenge to Landy’s charlatan therapy and guardianship of Brian? His father delivers several abusive encounters but we are left wanting more background. What about his mother?

Still, “Love and Mercy” deserves to be a classic not only for music lovers but for movie and biography aficionados. Just as “Good Vibrations” was Brian Wilson’s biggest hit,  “Love and Mercy” is a paean to the former glory of the once incomparable Brian Wilson.

“Ruby Sparks”– A Spark of Creativity”

Ruby SparksIf you could create the partner of your dreams, would you be happy with him or her?  Would that relationship be all about you, completely one-sided, and therefore unsatisfying? What makes “Ruby Sparks” so funny, but also harsh and uncomfortable, are answers to those questions given throughout this quirky film. Written by and starring Zoe Kazan as well as the exceptional Paul Dano (also in “Prisoners”, see last week’s movie review), “Ruby Sparks” is directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (of “Little Miss Sunshine” fame).

Calvin (Paul Dano) is a young novelist  whose reputation ranks just below that of “The Catcher in the Rye.”  Now, a decade later, he is  struggling with both writer’s block and a void in his romantic life.  Like all writers of fiction who have strong feelings for the characters they write about, as well as an ability to make the character real and worth being interesting, Calvin creates the character of Ruby (Zoe Kazan), his ideal girlfriend, and soon she is no longer a figment of his imagination but created in the flesh, sitting in his apartment.  Each time he writes about Ruby, the embodied Ruby has those attributes and behavior, including fluency in French.

The transitions in both Calvin and Ruby’s characters are expertly handled. Mr. Dano’s Calvin combines Woody Allen’s schlemiel and intellect.  But as Calvin’s manipulative experiments continue, the film abruptly turns down a dark road:  Ruby becomes alternatively manic, needy, independent, masochistically submissive and depressed.

The games reach a feverish pitch when Ruby watches Calvin sitting at his desk, frantically typing instructions about her, which she tries to resist but can’t.   Although he is either the Professor to Pygmalion or Geppetto to Pinocchio, Dano’s interpretation of Calvin results in a compelling and riveting performance.  He is as much a neurotic, self-absorbed victim as his fictive creation, Ruby, is.  The difference is that he is also incredibly amoral and capable of inflicting severe humiliation on Ruby.

“Ruby Sparks” (2012) cannot be easily categorized as comedy or drama, nor is it a rom-com although critics have called this unique movie all of the above.  It is, first and foremost, a film about creativity.   As in another brilliant movie, “Stranger than Fiction”  (2006) (starring Emma Thompson and Will Farrell), the writer of a novel is consumed by the characters he or she creates and they do take on a life of their own.  My novel, “Unhealed Wound”, will soon have a life of its own too.  I’ll keep you posted as the manuscript goes through its final polishing.