Bill Pohlad's bio-pic about Beach Boy Brian Wilson is two films of unequal appeal stitched together. One takes place in the 1960s, when Wilson (Paul Dano) is transitioning the group's sound from carefree melodies about sun and surf to the complex, weirdly gorgeous soundscapes of Pet Sounds and Smile. The music flows, but Wilson's mental health is increasingly fragile. The other half is set in the 1980s, when an isolated, unhappy Wilson (John Cusack) is kept under the control of a therapist (Paul Giamatti), until a chance meeting with car saleswoman (Elizabeth Banks) helps him regain his agency.
I really enjoyed the first half: Dano disappears into Wilson's logy, awkward form, and even in Wilson's moments of triumph, he always lets us see the terrified child inside. Filming creative work is difficult, but these scenes of music-making incorporate both the mechanical of the instrumentation and the magical of Wilson's inspirations, drawn from his bittersweet torments. (Wilson knows beauty, but it's suggested the sweet, heavily layered music he creates is a form of armor or psychological buttress.) The intercut 1980s material isn't bad, but Cusack can't match Dano; the older, sedated Wilson is a tougher character to make compelling. Without the creative process to drive the story, the second half falls into the familiar beats of a romantic dramedy. But I liked the 1960s portion enough to recommend that, like Brian Wilson, you hold on through the 1980s.