Love & Mercy’ captures the essence of Beach Boy Brian Wilson

Dano as Wilson in his carefree younger days.

Three and a half stars

Love & Mercy Paul Dano, John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks. Directed by Bill Pohlad. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday.

The two versions of Brian Wilson portrayed in biopic Love & Mercy don’t always connect, but they’re each remarkably affecting. Director Bill Pohlad focuses on two periods in Wilson’s life, with two actors playing the troubled musician: Paul Dano plays Wilson during his most creatively fertile period as leader of The Beach Boys, composing and recording the music for Pet Sounds and the aborted Smile album. And John Cusack plays Wilson at perhaps his lowest point, drugged and controlled by megalomaniacal psychiatrist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) and creatively at a dead end.

Dano and Cusack don’t much look alike, and their performances don’t necessarily line up, but each captures Wilson convincingly, and one of the movie’s strengths is that it doesn’t attempt to connect every dot. The Wilson of the 1960s is a musical dynamo, and Pohlad captures the giddy excitement of creating something new in the scenes of Wilson in the recording studio, especially an inspired montage that combines frustration, elation and tedium as it chronicles the creation of Beach Boys classic “Good Vibrations.” The Wilson of the 1980s almost never plays any music at all, and his life is focused on just remaining functional from day to day, as Landy berates him for having basic human needs and micromanages every aspect of his life. Pohlad and screenwriters Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner resist reducing Wilson’s entire life to a single inciting incident the way that too many biopics do.

Dano is typically loopy as the younger Wilson, and Cusack gives his best and most engaged performance in years as the older man, conveying how broken and yet hopeful he is, retaining just enough spark to let his younger self shine through. The movie posits Wilson’s second wife, Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), as the person who brought him back from the depths of despair, and Banks is excellent in what could have been a one-dimensional role. She gives an understated performance that shows Melinda’s compassion and determination, but never makes her seem like a generic savior.

Although Love & Mercy does fall back on some stock biopic elements, most notably in its villainous characterizations of both Landy and Wilson’s abusive father, it doesn’t try to fit Wilson’s messy life into a particular movie formula. He was and is both a musical genius and a fragile, mentally ill man, and Love & Mercy presents both of those sides as real and human.

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