Bill Pohlad, a producer who has overseen such films as Brokeback Mountain, Into the Wild, Tree of Life, and 12 Years a Slave, as well as the musically inclined biopic The Runaways, makes his directorial debut (technically a sophomore effort as his original debut was canned in the early 1990s) with a biopic of The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson that, while not a perfect film, is an interesting and sometimes illuminating portrait of an artist as a young and older man. Pohlad, working off a script by Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner, takes the unorthodox route of casting two actors to play the same man at very different points in his life—Paul Dano portrays Wilson as he works on what will become the famous Pet Sounds album in the 1960s, then John Cusack picks up the baton and plays Wilson as an addled recluse some twenty-odd years later. Their performances are not especially complimentary, but the overall effect is an effective portrait of a brilliant talent devastated by mental illness and addiction.
Dano and Cusack do not work in synchronicity, but separated as their performances are by era and the degrading symptoms of Wilson’s illness and addiction, it doesn’t really matter. Whatever tics one actor has that the other doesn’t use can be chalked up to the vastly different states of mind they are portraying within their own segments of the film. Dano is simply fantastic, playing the younger Wilson as a genius driven by competition as much as he is ambition. He’s not content to rest on his laurels and, being a visionary—this film is not particularly kind to the other Beach Boys—he wants to advance his band’s sound beyond the surfer-pop that made them famous. In contrast, Cusack is the best he’s been in a long while, playing up Wilson’s confusion and disintegrated mental state without ever taking his performance into caricature.
Pohlad weaves together the very different sides of his movie effectively, but the 1980s scenes don’t quite match up to the scenes set in the 1960s. Wilson and his wife, Melinda (played by Elizabeth Banks in the film), cooperated with the production and the result is that the 1980s storyline of Melinda saving Wilson from an unethical doctor, a super creepy Paul Giamatti, comes off as sanitized and a little too pat. In contrast, the 1960s stuff in which Wilson’s father berates and abuses him stand out as more visceral and emotionally resonant simply because, despite the sun-drenched light, there is less gloss applied. No one cared how Murry Wilson came off, so Pohlad was free to push those scenes into deeper, more troubling waters.
Despite its (few) idiosyncrasies, this is a top-notch movie. The acting is solid, particularly from Dano; Pohlad’s direction is assured and graceful; and Atticus Ross’s score is kind of incredible, especially when you consider that he had to create music for a movie about a musical genius. The binary central performance isn’t a gimmick but is an interesting way to illustrate the differences wrought by breakdown, psychosis, and addiction. The only real drawback is the restraint shown in the latter portions of the film, but that’s only noticeable because the earlier segments are so damn good. You don’t have to be a Beach Boys fan to appreciate Love & Mercy, so don’t let potential surface disinterest put you off one of the more original and interesting biopics in recent memory.