A Beach Boy bonanza, and Melissa McCarthy in a James Bond send-up

Melissa McCarthy stars in the action comedy "Spy." — Photo courtesy fandango.com

It’s hard to imagine a music fan who doesn’t love the Beach Boys, those avatars of ’60s surfer music. But filmgoers may find themselves surprised by what they find in Love & Mercy, director Bill Pohlad’s portrait of Brian Wilson, currently playing at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center and Entertainment Cinemas. This remarkable film delves deep into the psyche of the Beach Boys’ brilliant headliner, and explores how he crafted the group’s music despite struggles with mental illness and drug abuse.

Love & Mercy portrays Brian as he begins to move away from the pop tunes that launched the group’s initial success in the mid-’60s, and 20 years later as he recovers from the psychological problems that plagued him as a young man. Paul Dano plays the young, ’60s Brian, who shifts musical gears with the creation of his 1966 masterpiece Pet Sounds and Smile, which wasn’t released in its original form until 2011. Brian’s bandmates, brothers Dennis (Kenny Wormald) and Carl (Brett Davern), seem happy to go along with his move in a new, more complex direction, while less tolerant cousin Mike Love (Jake Abel) resists it, favoring the sure-fire pop machine approach.

The film opens with the middle-aged, ’80s version of Brian, played by John Cusack, as he shops for a new car at a Cadillac dealership. Ex-model Melinda Ledbetter, played by Elizabeth Banks, is the salesperson who waits on him, and he is instantly captivated by her. Although Ms. Banks is a drop-dead blonde beauty, her looks matter less than her sweet-natured attentiveness to Brian, and the moral strength that she conveys so successfully. When Brian first walks into the car dealership, she doesn’t even recognize him as the pop music superstar he is.

Quick to assert himself as part of Brian’s entourage is Gene Landy (a terrifying Paul Giamatti), who is Brian’s manipulative psychologist, pill dispenser, and legal guardian. Gene echoes the Wilson brothers’ abusive father Murry (Bill Camp), who served as the band’s manager in the early days and appears in the Dano sections of the film.

Love & Mercy smoothly slips back and forth between Dano’s Brian and Cusack’s. Neither actor looks like Brian, but it doesn’t matter; they function persuasively as mirror images of a single person. Dano captures the childlike innocence of the young Brian, who suffers from panic attacks and refuses to go on tour with the rest of the band, experiments with drugs, and careens into serious mental illness. This Brian comes alive in the recording studio, working with the celebrated sessions band Wrecking Crew, and tinkering with unconventional and radical sound effects that include barking dogs and bobby-pinned piano strings.
Cusack’s ’80s Brian is the damaged soul struggling to recover a modicum of balance in his life and, especially, to escape from Gene’s increasingly destructive manipulations. Brian reaches out to Melinda, who plays a central role in wresting him from Gene’s clutches and helps him find his way back to normalcy. The real Brian Wilson and Melinda Ledbetter, who are married and the parents of five children, consulted on the film.

Many parts of the Brian Wilson story are elided in the film — his relationship with his first wife and their two daughters after their divorce, for instance. The more graphic aspects of his mental illness and drug abuse stay in the background, as does his connection to his brothers. His mother plays virtually no part in the film. What stands out loud and clear is the remarkable talent of this musician, and his ability to exercise it despite almost overwhelming problems.

Melissa McCarthy as a superduper CIA agent in Spy

Since she stole the show in Bridesmaids, Melissa McCarthy has become a comic phenom, and she is at her best in the new James Bond send-up Spy, currently playing at the Capawock Theater and Entertainment Cinemas. As C.I.A. analyst Susan Cooper, she has been relegated to the agency basement and computer tracking for years, while Bradley Fine (Jude Law) gets all the action. Her role on the sidelines changes, though, when her C.I.A. boss (an uncredited Allison Janney) assigns her to go undercover in the field and keep a stolen nuclear weapon out of terrorists’ hands.

Writer and director Paul Feig has a knack for combining boldness and timidity in Susan, just as he did when he created McCarthy’s breakout role as Megan in Bridesmaids. Susan may get to leave her desk job behind, but not without plenty of insults and humiliating disguises. No matter.  Susan rises to the challenge, and learns to assert herself among a gaggle of dimwitted macho operatives. She also holds her own against the far more glamorous and equally foul-mouthed villainesses she is assigned to track.

Particularly successful is the way the movie puts McCarthy’s “plus” size to good advantage. Susan uses her weight effectively both in fight scenes and, hilariously, with a dumbly arrogant rogue agent as well as an overamorous Italian one. Director Feig knows how to set up his Susan in comic situations without really squashing her. A cat-lady disguise hardly fazes Susan, and after tipping over on a motorcycle, she quickly outmaneuvers the bad guys by driving a bright red motor scooter.

Spy is a movie that celebrates feminine smarts and physical strengths. No matter that the plot’s twists and turns are often total nonsense. When was James Bond anything but fantasy? And at the close of the movie, when too-handsome-to-be-real Jude Law’s Bradley Fine invites Susan out to dinner to celebrate a mission successfully accomplished, she chooses a night out with the girls instead. Touché!

Love & Mercy, Thursday, June 11, and Saturday, June 13, 7:30 pm; Friday, June 12, 4 pm, at Martha’s Vineyard Film Center; and Friday, June 12, 4 pm, 7 pm, 9:30 pm; Sunday, June 14, 1 pm, 4 pm; Tuesday, June 16, 12:45 pm, 3:45 pm, 6:45 pm at Entertainment Cinemas.

Spy, Friday, June 12, 6:30 pm; Saturday, June 13, 9 pm at Capawock Theater, Vineyard Haven; and Saturday, June 13, 1 pm, 4 pm, 6:45 pm, 9:25 pm; Sunday, June 14, 12:45 pm, 3:45 pm; Monday, June 15, 3:45 pm, 6:45 pm; Wednesday, June 17, 12:45 pm, 3:45 pm, 6:45 pm at Entertainment Cinemas.