The beauty, and the horror, of Bill Pohlad's exhilarating and inventive Love & Mercy -- which traces the sine wave of Beach Boy Brian Wilson's troubled adult life using two actors, Paul Dano and John Cusack -- is the sense it gives us of the world passing through the man's ears. When the older, circa-1980s Wilson, played by Cusack, explains to his new girlfriend Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) that he hears voices in his head, she asks, with great tenderness, how long it's been happening. "Since 1963," he says. Is it possible that the Beach Boys' early hit "Surfer Girl," one of the warmest and most youthfully wistful ballads of twentieth-century pop music, began with a whisper only Wilson could hear?
That's not to suggest Love & Mercy leans on tired theories about the link between genius and madness. Pohlad's approach is much more delicate than that. But Love & Mercy -- which was made with the cooperation of Wilson and his now-wife, Ledbetter -- is surprisingly specific in exploring both the mystery and craftsmanship of song creation.
Dano can be a dispassionate, affected actor, but all his arty coolness slips away here. Cusack shows us a slightly different but no less believable Wilson, guarded and fragile, though we can also see how he yearns to be open: He's like a sadder, mirror-world version of Say Anything's Lloyd Dobler, holding a boombox aloft in a cry for help, only to realize no sound is coming out. And Banks is superb -- this is the finest performance she's given yet.