I’m always a little on edge when I sit down to watch a movie about someone living with mental illness, particularly if it is a true story. Did the actors, writers, and director get what it is like to live with mental illness or did they make a caricature of it? Did they romanticize it? Did they put a hockey mask over the face of the sufferer and an ax in his hand? Is it another ECT scene out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? Or do we get the truth?
Bill Pohlad’s Love and Mercy had me worried about romanticization before I saw it. I dreaded that he would render the illness of Beach Boy Brian Wilson as cute and fuzzy, something that would make us wonder whether we were too cruel when it came to the mentally ill. It did do that, but there is a right way to go about it and a wrong way. The wrong way declares that there is no such thing as mental illness; it diminishes the impact that the illness has on those closest to the sufferer and suggests that the illness that afflicted the likes of Brian Wilson was little more than a personality quirk. Pohlad and his cast did it the right way: it acknowledges the severity of Wilson’s illness, but also turns a harsh eye towards his guardian/therapist, one Eugene Landy and his sadistic oversight of the musical great. Paul Giamatti’s performance was so to the T that when Wilson watched the movie, he experienced a severe dissociative state where he believed for several minutes that Giamatti was Landers come back to haunt him.