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A Beach Boy's Triumph

'Love & Mercy' traces Brian Wilson's emergence from an endless bummer

Rating: PG-13

Run Time: 2 hours

Stars: Elizabeth Banks, John Cusack, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti

Director: Bill Pohlad

A biographical film with uncommon heart and a novel knack for storytelling, Love & Mercy conveys the story of troubled Beach Boy Brian Wilson while enfolding him in a warm, teary embrace.

It's a story that has, to borrow the title of a classic Wilson tune, healthy doses of "Heroes and Villains," as well as compelling glimpses into the mind of a guy who wrote such infectiously peppy tunes as "Fun, Fun, Fun" and "California Girls" even as he was slipping into a black hole of mental illness.

Director Bill Pohlad chooses not to give us an A-to-Z account of Wilson's life. Instead, the film focuses on two pivotal periods: the mid-1960s, when Wilson, prone to panic attacks, retreated from touring with the band to concentrate on creating recording-studio masterpieces, and the 1980s, when he met and fell in love with car saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), who doggedly endeavored to pull him out from under the thumb of a shady therapist named Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti).

Narrative approach aside, the riskiest element of Love & Mercy lies in its casting: Paul Dano plays the 1960s Wilson, while John Cusack plays the 1980s version. Both performances are startling in a heartbreaking kind of way.

Love and Mercy, Brian Wilson, movie, Paul Dano

Francois Duhamel/Roadside Attractions

Two actors, Paul Dano (pictured) and John Cusack, portray the Beach Boys' troubled lead singer, Brian Wilson

Dano bears a striking physical resemblance to the young Wilson. His doughy appearance and soft, high-pitched voice seem to channel everything we'd expect from the thoughtful young man who packaged his revolutionary form of songwriting inside the safe trappings of '60s pop. Propelled by the success of the Beatles — the film alludes to how the two groups shamelessly stole from each other — Wilson pushes the Beach Boys so far beyond their singsong beginnings that one band member laments, "The surfers don't like our music."

But as the band progresses artistically, Brian is slipping away. He hears voices. He makes musicians stand by silently in the studio for hours as he waits for the vibes to be just right. And yes, he really does have his piano in a sandbox.

Cut to the 1980s, when we find Wilson in the sway of Landy, a notorious Dr. Feelgood who has not only taken control of the musician's health but is producing his records and monitoring his every waking moment. Wilson is shadowed everywhere he goes by supposed bodyguards; in reality their mission is to keep him under wraps.

On an outing to a Cadillac dealership, Wilson meets the lovely Melinda. Their mutual attraction upsets Landy's delicately balanced applecart. If love really does conquer all, this time it's going to have to battle one vicious SOB. In one heart-stopping scene, Landy berates Wilson for eating a hamburger without his permission. As Landy, Giamatti sticks his face in Cusack's, eyes bulging, veins popping, screaming as if the poor cringing guy had just tried to swallow Drano. The scene lasts perhaps a minute. You won't exhale until it's over.

As the older Wilson, Cusack drew the tougher assignment. He doesn't share Dano's immediate physical resemblance to the famous songwriter, and the childlike qualities that make Dano's performance so endearing are harder to pull off in a middle-aged man. But Cusack adapts much of his own quirky charisma for the role. It could have been distracting, but in the end Love & Mercy benefits from two leading men taking two very different approaches to the same role. Each brings his own distinctive authenticity to the part. It's a tribute to director Pohlad that he seamlessly melds these two fine performances.

If not for its unyielding stream of Beach Boys music, Love & Mercy might well have been too intense to enjoy. But just as they did in the tumultuous '60s — then time and again as each of us faced our own personal upheavals over the decades — the hopeful, tuneful, impeccably harmonized songs of Brian Wilson fade in and save the day, then sail off into a perfect California sunset.

Bill Newcott is a writer, editor and movie critic for AARP Media.