So ... Kevin Spacey apparently really wanted to play Bobby Darin, didn’t he?
I’ve played this tune before about actors or filmmakers and their dream projects. Dream projects often become dream projects because they’re too sprawling or ill-conceived for anyone to be willing to finance them. It’s only once someone has acquired enough cachet that people are afraid to say no to him or her, that these notions ever see the light of day.
So Kevin Spacey adored Bobby Darin and wanted to make a balls-out musical biopic celebrating the entertainer’s legacy; he wanted to direct and write and sing and dance the story of a guy who died younger than Spacey is now. Bully for him. But we’re the ones who are going to sit through the confounding, daffy Beyond the Sea and suffer for his hubris.
He seems to think he can get away with it by making a freewheeling sort of meta-biography, with Spacey-as-Darin reflecting on his life while he actually makes a film-within-the-film of his story. This, apparently, is the flavor of the month for getting around the conventional “this, then this, then this” rhythms of film biographies; Kevin Kline’s Cole Porter bio De-Lovely tried a variation on the same trick earlier this year. By the way, it’s kind of annoying, and it doesn’t work. Please stop. Thanks.
A young version of Bobby (William Ullrich) takes him and us back to his youth as Walden Robert Cassatto in the Bronx, and the mother (Brenda Blethyn) who nursed him back to health (after a life-threatening bout with rheumatic fever) and fed him dreams of fame. Here, Spacey actually taps into something interesting as he puts Darin on the couch, reading his genre-hopping career and intense ambition as the quest for immortality of a sickly guy always aware of his mortality.
Unfortunately, he taps into it kind of as an afterthought, with a couple of late lines of dialogue trying to make up for lost time. Mostly, Spacey and co-writer Lewis Colick (Ladder 49) throw together a sprawling gallop through Darin’s greatest biographical hits: his novelty smash “Splish Splash;” the shift from rock-and-roller to standards crooner; his film career, including his marriage to teen idol Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth); a revelation about his past that somehow ties into yet another career shift, this time to folk singer. It’s big! It’s bold!
It’s also a showy, doughy mess. Darin’s a complicated, interesting character, unquestionably, but Beyond the Sea’s only real purpose seems to be getting him out there in the public eye again to be appreciated. Spacey lionizes Darin’s efforts at breaking the Copacabana’s racist booking policies by going to bat for black stand-up comic George Kirby, and sympathizes with poor Darin when a nightclub crowd hoots at his protest anthems and shouts out for “Mack the Knife” (admit it, you’d do the same). But there’s a whole lot of surface level here, Darin’s contradictions and relationships smoothed over to ensure cooperation from his family.
Surface level, however, is the one on which Spacey seems determined to operate. It’s a tough call as to whether he calls more attention to himself with his camerawork or with his on-screen performance. Like an actor still insecure about being perceived as a “real director” (this is just his second feature), he employs showy camera moves at every possible opportunity—gliding down from the adult Bobby behind an open casket lid to reveal the young Bobby, just as one of the more egregious examples. And as the star, he emotes and breaks things as a respite between the production numbers that allow him to sing Darin’s songs and do some soft-shoein’ (not too shabbily in both cases). He wants us to see how hard he’s working, and it’s aggravating—almost as aggravating as his gallingly ironic poke at a then-closeted Rock Hudson (for those unaware of the galling irony therein, do a Google search on the terms “Kevin Spacey” and “gay.”)
You may be fooled into thinking you watched something entertaining just because the cool music will have you humming as you exit the theater, but that’s no more than the soundtrack album would get you. At least Spacey now has his dream project out of his system, and there’s yet another lesson out there about how some dreams should not necessarily be allowed to come true.
BEYOND THE SEA ** Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, Brenda Blethyn Rated PG-13