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'Love & Mercy' review: Fawning biopic on the two Brian Wilsons

Paul Dano as Brian Wilson in a scene

Paul Dano as Brian Wilson in a scene from the film, "Love & Mercy." Credit: AP / Francois Duhamel

There are two Brian Wilsons, at least in the popular imagination. One is the California kid whose band, the Beach Boys, beguiled American teenagers during the early 1960s with upbeat hits like "Surfin' U.S.A." and "Fun, Fun, Fun." The other is the middle-age show-biz casualty, driven mad by a failed masterpiece and given to wandering Los Angeles in a bathrobe and slippers.

Bill Pohlad's biographical film about Wilson, "Love & Mercy," takes this notion literally, splitting its subject into two actors: Paul Dano as the young hitmaker and John Cusack as the addled recluse. It's a daring conceit built around two fine talents, but the results are decidedly mixed.

For classic rock fans, the sequences with Dano (who clearly gained weight for the role) will be the most compelling. These show the making of the band's 1966 album, "Pet Sounds," which stretched the potential of pop music -- before the Beatles did -- by using orchestral arrangements, Dadaist sound elements (sleigh bells, dogs) and prepared instruments (a piano full of bobby pins on the track "You Still Believe in Me"). Pohlad re-creates the studio sessions with great detail and uses his actors to add dramatic context.

Less effective is the other Wilson. The slender Cusack doesn't resemble the stocky Wilson at all, and he mimics the singer's stilted mannerisms without capturing his childlike spirit. Cusack's scenes with Elizabeth Banks, as Wilson's now-wife, Melinda Ledbetter, have little emotional warmth. The dependable Paul Giamatti, however, makes for an excellent villain as Dr. Eugene Landy, the self-help guru who controlled Wilson for years.

Made with the cooperation of Wilson and Ledbetter, "Love & Mercy" suffers from a larger problem: It's overly enamored of its subject. Multiple scenes extol Wilson's genius or bemoan his madness but offer few clear insights into the man. (Bill Camp, as Wilson's abusive father, gives us a clue.) The film's strongest suit is its soundtrack, which features Beach Boys classics and bits of Wilson's troubled masterpiece, "Smile" (sometimes blended into noise-collages by composer Atticus Ross), along with a new Wilson tune, "One Kind of Love." The music speaks far louder than the movie.

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