You gotta love a biopic that shakes things up. Just like Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys innovator whose gifts as singer, songwriter and producer were based on experimentation. Instead of one actor to portray Wilson, sidelined by drugs and mental illness, director Bill Pohlad gives us two, both superb in different ways. Paul Dano, who put on pounds to further the moon-faced likeness, plays Wilson during the 1960s, at the height of his artistic creativity. John Cusack, who looks distractingly unlike Wilson, plays the shaken genius during the 1980s, when he barely emerged from the pill-induced haze created by therapist Eugene Landy (a full-tilt Paul Giamatti). His rescuer is Cadillac saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), who became his second wife.
Does Ledbetter’s consulting credit skew the film dramatically? Maybe. But the whip-smart script, by Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner, neatly sidesteps cliché. So does Dino Jonsater’s editing, which shuns the linear to skip between time periods until juxtaposition yields clarity. Musically, the film is a miracle, right and riveting in every detail. Just watch Wilson in the studio, coaxing musicians on “Good Vibrations” and Pet Sounds, which uses whistles, bicycle bells and barking dogs to approach what Wilson hears in his head. In contrast to Cusack’s introspection, Dano lets it bleed, giving a performance awards were invented for. You can’t take your eyes off him.