Love & Mercy ★★★★

A recording studio in Southern California. A group of studio musicians assembled. An undeniably brilliant (and possibly insane) young man wanders the room, obsessively perfecting each instrument’s part. One player calls him over. Something is wrong. All the strings are in one key, and the horns are in another. How is it going to work?

Brian Wilson shrugs. It works in his head. So it will work on tape.

LOVE & MERCY is like that too. It tells two simultaneous stories about one man played by two actors working in very different keys. Paul Dano uncannily recreates the young Brian Wilson; he looks and sounds just like him. John Cusack plays the middle-aged Wilson and looks and sounds just like ... John Cusack. He bears little physical or aural resemblance to Wilson (or, for that matter, to Dano). But he gives a strong performance all the same. It’s just a different sort of performance. Played together, the two are greater than the sum of their parts, like individual vocal lines that blend together to form a beautiful harmony about surfing or little deuce coupes.

Most of the drama comes in the Cusack chapters; with a mentally unbalanced Wilson under the control of an unethical psychotherapist named Eugene Landy (a well-cast, if poorly-wigged, Paul Giamatti). The older Wilson falls for a Cadillac car salesman (Elizabeth Banks), who begins to question Landy’s treatments. But most of the soul comes from the Dano chapters, with the brilliant but mentally troubled young Wilson reaching his creative peak and his emotional nadir. Watching Dano fall enriches Cusack’s rise.

The only sour notes come at the end, when the film tries to blend Dano and Cusack together in a way that feels forced. (Also: Wouldn’t it be nice if a song about the Beach Boys didn’t have to end with “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”?) But overall, I found this to be a surprisingly effective and extremely moving portrait of an artist at his highest and lowest, not to mention one that avoids most music biopic pitfalls (and used the ones it doesn’t to its advantage). Dano is particularly impressive. Perhaps a long shot, but I hope he’s remembered during awards season. Wouldn’t *that* be nice?