"Beyond the Sea," Kevin Spacey's biopic about pop singer Bobby Darin, is a fascinating misfire, a movie that gets a few things absolutely right while getting quite a few other...
“Beyond the Sea,” Kevin Spacey’s biopic about pop singer Bobby Darin, is a fascinating misfire, a movie that gets a few things absolutely right while getting quite a few other things very, very wrong indeed. It’s easy to criticize but hard to dismiss, because there are a few places in it where Spacey touches the soul of what musicals should be — the exuberance, the sweep, the heightened emotion of the music taking us to a better place.
In a screenplay reportedly worked on by many writers, but ultimately credited to Spacey and Lewis Colick, we watch Darin grow from a Bronx boy (played as a child by William Ullrich) with a music-loving mother (Brenda Blethyn) to a nightclub singer to — thanks to “Splish Splash” and “Mack the Knife” — a major star. It’s given an elaborate, self-conscious framework of Darin making a movie about himself, as a way of tossing a bone to the problem of 45-year-old Spacey playing — and voicing — a man who found fame in his early 20s and died at 37.
“He was born to play the part!” rasps Bob Hoskins (as Darin’s loyal brother-in-law) to a naysayer who wonders if Darin is too old to play himself. Cute, but it doesn’t address the problem — that the idea of blank-faced, middle-aged Spacey as a teen idol is more than a tad ludicrous.
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Somewhere deep inside, Spacey the director knows it’s ludicrous — that’s why much of the “Splish Splash” scene, complete with squealing young girls, is shown at great distance, projected on a TV screen. But Spacey the director knew something else, over all the years it took to get this difficult film made: that he had the vocal chops to make Darin’s songs live again, and that doing his own singing gives the film a bounce that it might not otherwise have.
And really — can you blame him for wanting to sing the songs himself? Wouldn’t we all, if given the opportunity, want to belt “Mack the Knife” into a microphone, with a swinging band behind us? Spacey’s obvious delight in the music is what gives “Beyond the Sea” its energy — it’s what takes the performance beyond mere imitation. And it’s a treat to see Spacey, who’s been sleepwalking through his movies for years, finally wake up — this is his best work since “L.A. Confidential.” “Beyond the Sea” is clearly the result of passion — one might say obsession — and that registers in his performance.
But some of that passion, alas, was misplaced, and the movie might have been better served by a little less of Spacey. The screenplay is a muddled mess, focusing on the troubled marriage of Darin and Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth, bland and blond), which seems indistinguishable from any other high-profile troubled marriage — lots of shrieking, drinking and tears. And Spacey, in only his second turn as a director, doesn’t show much skill with actors: Bosworth barely registers, Caroline Aaron shamelessly overacts as Bobby’s sister Nina, Blethyn seems to be channeling Liza Minnelli as Bobby’s mother, and Hoskins and John Goodman are practically interchangeable.
“Beyond the Sea” contains a few high-concept song-and-dance numbers — one in which young Bobby heads off to pursue his dream, one in which he woos Dee, one “All That Jazz”-style final number — and in these the movie springs to life, playfully teasing the idea of film biography. (Darin, looking back on his life, comments that this is how he’d like to remember it — and, again, wouldn’t we all?)
And the key to the film can be found in one tiny moment, in a montage set just after Darin has found fame with “Mack the Knife.” Filmed from behind, introduced to an enthusiastic audience barely visible on the dark stage, he strides from the wings, waves to the crowd, and does a little, impromptu dance step — just a sway, just a toe reaching behind to tap, just a little wallow in the joy of the moment. Hard to say whether it’s Darin having fun, or Spacey having fun — but either way, it’s infectious.