Paul Dano and John Cusack team up to portray the Beach Boys' tender, enigmatic Brian Wilson during two troubled eras of his life in the unconventional biopic Love & Mercy, opening Friday areawide.
It's unconventional in the sense that it's not a linear story. We've got Brian Wilson, the sonic genius and innovator, breaking from the lollipop surfer-pop of the '50s and early '60s and orchestrating the complex backing tracks of Pet Sounds, to the disapproval of his father and touring bandmates. Then we've got a vacant Wilson, 20 years later, diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic by the manipulative therapist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), and trying to fall in love while being monitored and medicated beyond recognition.
In both periods, Dano and Cusack play the afflicted Wilson with — I beg your pardon — love and mercy. Dano in particular, in what may be the Little Miss Sunshine actor's strongest performance to date — I couldn't stand him in Looper — convincingly charts Wilson's descent into mental instability, from the opening blurry shot in which, seated at a piano, he mumbles through a barely coherent defense of his sought-after sound.
At the same time, Dano celebrates the magic and spontaneity of the studio. During marathon recording sessions, he prances among the instrumentalists, coaxing the never-before-heard harmonies toward the designs in his head. But it's not only music up there in Wilson's head; it's voices too. And Dano packs on the pounds as those voices become louder, more dissonant, more debilitating,
Cusack is the trapped Wilson of the '80s, imprisoned by a "doctor" who also intends to cash in on the music still inside his charge. Wilson meets the Cadillac saleswoman, Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), who must decide not only if she loves the emotionally battered former celeb, but whether or not she should (and can) intervene. The scenes of romance are always haunted by Giamatti's Landy in the periphery, and this creates a constant discomfort for the characters and, be well apprised, the viewers. In one super-tense moment, Landy screams at a drooling Wilson for eating a hamburger before Ledbetter eats hers. Giamatti, ever more Hollywood's "mean music executive for hire," is a tad one-note as the villainous caretaker, but all three (Cusack, Banks and Giamatti) contribute meaningfully to the untenable dynamic's portrayal.
Cusack, though, isn't the perfect evolution of Dano's Wilson, and the back-and-forth nature of the script creates the occasional illusion that this might be two different films entirely, two similarly (but not identically) cadenced interpretations of the same remarkable man. The elder storyline's not quite as strong as the younger, but that might be because music is no longer at its heart. And seeing Pet Sounds unfold in the studio is a blast. "Wouldn't It Be Nice" ... "That's Not Me" ... "Sloop John B" ... "God Only Knows" ... what an album.