cast: Melissa McCarthy, Rose Byrne, Jason Statham, Jude Law, Miranda Hart, Allison Janney
writer/director: Paul Feig
MPAA: Rated R for language throughout, violence, and some sexual content including brief graphic nudity
Love & Mercy
cast: John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti
writers: Oren Moverman, Michael Alan Lerner
director: Bill Pohlad
MPAA: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, drug content and language
This week at the movies, we’ve got the stories of two characters being held back by their codependent attachments to supposedly greater men, and the journeys toward empowerment each must take. In Spy, the second terrific Melissa McCarthy action-comedy to be helmed by the great Paul Feig (after The Heat), McCarthy stars as Susan Cooper, a desk-jockey CIA analyst stuck in a basement office perennially infested with varying species of vermin. Her job consists of being the voice in the earpiece of dashing spy Bradley Fine (Jude Law, stepping up his toupee game), using thermal maps of his surroundings to make sure he’s always ready to shoot the henchman just around the corner. Susan is not-no-secretly infatuated with Bradley, and feels a false sense of intimacy with him that he encourages with endless flirtation—it’s been 16 years since The Talented Mr. Ripley, but Law can still play a cocktease with the best of them.
In Love & Mercy, a nonlinear biopic of Beach Boys frontman Brian Wilson, we get twin narratives of Wilson’s life, one set in the late ’60s (in which he’s played by Paul Dano, who doesn’t get beat up for once), and one in the late ’80s; the two are woven together to unspool jointly. This latter time period finds Wilson (played by John Cusack) a broken-down shell of a man, trapped in a deeply dysfunctional relationship with his quack doctor and legal guardian, Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti, in a far less flattering wig than Law’s in Spy). Landy ingratiated himself into Wilson’s life when he was at his most mentally and emotionally vulnerable in the mid ’70s, and while he’d ostensibly succeeded in ending Wilson’s recluse period, his interests had gradually shifted from his patient’s health to ensuring his own ongoing control of his life, relationships, and finances.
Back in Spy, Susan’s vicarious existence through Bradley is halted when a grave mishap occurs in the field. CIA chief Elaine Crocker (Allison Janney in hard-ass mode) calls an emergency meeting of her other top spies, including the stubborn, blustery Rick Ford (a delightful, surprising Jason Statham), as well as Susan, to discuss whom to dispatch into the field to sort out this latest mess—which also involves the plot to a sell a nuke to the highest bidder by a Bulgarian gangster’s vengeful daughter, Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne, strutting off with the whole movie and delivering its funniest line in response to a loopy toast Susan makes on a private jet). Since Rayna has somehow learned the identities of Elaine’s other spies, Susan volunteers out of a sense of loyalty to Bradley. And so, armed with a series of humiliating cat-lady disguises, covert weapons disguised as stool softeners, and the trusty assistance of her own analyst, Nancy (a scene-stealing, wondrously daffy Miranda Hart), Susan sets off on a globe-trotting adventure to take down Rayna and thwart the nuke deal.
Our audience surrogate—and de facto Love & Mercy protagonist, since Wilson himself is so opaque as a character—arrives in the form of Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks, firmly grasping her dignity despite hilarious ’80s wardrobe and styling that make her look like one of Frank Drebin’s love interests in The Naked Gun). Melinda meets Brian when he and his Landy-guided entourage go shopping at the car dealership where she works. The two hit it off while sitting in a floor model, with Brian volunteering all manner of personal information and non sequiturs while Melinda gamely disguises her fear that she’s about to be murdered by a crazy person (she does not yet know his identity). Brian begins to sweetly court Melinda, who frankly is probably a bit more willing to embrace his eccentricities once she finds out he’s Brian Wilson; I can’t imagine she’d normally have gone on a date with any random disheveled mumbler who started talking about his dead brother seconds after they met. But as Melinda and Brian get closer, she finds herself increasingly alarmed by the role Landy plays in Brian’s life—and Landy gradually begins looking for ways to banish her from the picture.
For the first time since I started doing these comparative reviews a month ago, I won’t be using one movie’s strengths to admonish the other for its weaknesses this week. Because, great news: they’re both really good! Spy may bear more than a passing resemblance to The Heat in its talent and the rhythm of its plot, but tonally it’s a more subtle affair, at least for the first two acts; its tone and humor almost feels faintly British, perhaps in homage to the classic spy films it’s referencing. It feels a good deal talkier and more dialogue-driven, while still boasting its fair share of balls-out action sequences.
Most notably, McCarthy actually reins it in for once—and is all the more effective because of this. It’s not until the third act that she reverts to the machine-gun displays of acrobatic obscenity we’ve come to expect from her comedy vehicles, and even then she’s doing it at a layered remove, consciously playing a character within her character. Spy also requires quite a bit from her in the action sequences, in which she’s more than credible; one particular knife fight sequence between her and the stunning Nargis Fakhri is every bit as nail-biting as anything in Kill Bill. And although the movie runs about 20 minutes too long (since Paul Feig belongs to the Judd Apatow School of Esteemed Comedic Filmmakers Who Make Movies As Long As They Goddamn Want) and drags in a few stretches, it’s another worthy entry into the pantheon of great comedies this network of insanely talented people has gifted us.
I know I said I wasn’t going to use one movie’s strengths to admonish the other’s weakness, but I spoke too soon. Love & Mercy director Bill Pohlad could probably learn a thing or two about reining in one’s actors from Paul Feig, as each of his male principles give varyingly problematic performances. Paul Dano is the heart and soul of the film’s most emotionally gripping sequences, portraying the stretch of Wilson’s life from his band’s surf-rock heyday on through the realization of his masterpieces, Pet Sounds and “Good Vibrations,” and the onset of his descent into mental illness. Love & Mercy is at its best in the grainy, verité-vibe Pet Sounds recording scenes in which Wilson directs his studio musicians on how to realize this transcendent, magical, entirely new sound in his head. Dano is channeling something mighty powerful in these moments; we feel like we’re thrillingly close to watching genius at work. However, in all his intensity and vulnerability, Dano tiptoes over the #fullretard line once or thrice, as he’s wont to do, which is always a distraction.
Cusack seems miscast in the role of the elder Wilson, not because he’s bad, but because the role is so fundamentally anti-Cusack, requiring him to hold his eyes in hangdog softness and fight that trademark sarcastic bite out of his voice, since Wilson is the epitome of earnest and uncynical. Giamatti might as well be playing the villain in a Marvel movie for all the scenery-chewing rage he projects as Landy; Bill Camp is on similarly simplistic, over-villainous ground as Wilson’s father, who comes across as every bit the classic show-biz movie Asshole Parent Who Doesn’t Get It. Only Banks, in a dramatic role that also allows her to play to her sardonic comic strengths, gives a fully well-balanced performance, but in a role that feels reductive: the mommy figure who’s come to save the baby-man from the bad man.
Still, in spite of these performance-related drawbacks, Love & Mercy emerges as one of the finest musical biopics in years. What Pohlad lacks in his control over actors, he more than makes up for in his visual sensibility and the impressionistic flourishes he brings to the story. Although the two Wilson performances never fully gel together (according to Cusack, he and Dano never met on the set nor discussed aligning their performances—it shows), this ballad of one of the 20th century’s greatest musical minds told from both sides of the abyss that swallowed him for 20 years is one of the most vivid, powerful depictions of the artistic temperament I’ve seen.
One note, though: around midway into the film, ’80s Brian makes a reference to how long it’s been since he saw his daughters. At this moment, I nearly jumped up from my seat and yelled “HOLY SHIT, THAT’S RIGHT! CARNIE AND WENDY WILSON! WILSON PHILLIPS IS TWO-THIRDS BRIAN WILSON DAUGHTERS!” And while Carnie and Wendy are never named (presumably for legal reasons), it took me a good 10 or 20 minutes to stop reliving the “Hold On” video and focus on the movie again. So do yourself a favor and get this out of your system before you head to the theater. You’ll thank me.
Spy and Love & Mercy open in theaters today.