Not so much a biopic of the crooner Bobby Darin, as a queasily self-centered one-man show by director/star/producer/singer Kevin Spacey, who not only plays the man, but sings all of Darin’s songs in the film. It’s one thing to have an actor playing a singer handle his own vocals during a concert scene for the sake of verisimilitude, but having Spacey’s voice being the only one on the entire soundtrack seems a strangely egomaniacal thing to do. None of this would likely matter much, of course, if “Beyond the Sea” were a better film, but it’s actually terribly far from being an even decent film.
Things don’t begin well, when a smashing Steadicam crawl and nightclub number is broken up by a poorly-conceived structural conceit: what we’re going to be watching is not a straight biographical piece, but rather a sort of a meta-picture in which Darin himself is directing a film of his own life (even though he never did that in real life). Thusly we see off to the side filmsets from different stages of his life and Darin obsessively doing take after take in order to get everything just right. And then the actor playing the young Darin (William Ullrich) shows up, claiming that Darin’s memory is for crap, and that this isn’t how it happened at all. At which point, the elder Darin tells him, “Kid, memories are like moonbeams, we do with them what we want.” It’s pretty much all downhill from there.
The story of Darin’s life does have its interesting moments (for a guy remembered today mostly as a crooner of pieces like the title song and “Mack the Knife”), considering that he was just a sickly runt from the Bronx (born Walden Robert Cassotto in 1936) who doctors thought wouldn’t see his sixteenth year. By the time Darin was 23, though, he had a slew of gold records and two Grammys to his name. He jumped into making films not long after, winning an Oscar nomination for 1963’s “Captain Newman, M.D.” Darin dropped into semi-obscurity in the 1960s, before resurfacing as a hippified singer later in the decade, and ultimately died after heart surgery in 1973, only 36 years old. But in Spacey’s overanxious hands, the most engaging moments of Darin’s dramatic rise to fame are shunted aside and instead we get Darin The Troubled Artist Who’s Ahead Of His Time in that inimitably flat and strangely campy manner that has afflicted Spacey’s acting since American Beauty.
The constant bursting of the fourth wall in the film’s earlier segments keeps bringing to mind this year’s other adventurous musical, the Cole Porter extravaganza “De-Lovely,” but unlike that problematic but much more successful film, “Beyond the Sea” keeps the music strangely in the background. Spacey’s singing doesn’t help matters, either. Although his voice is quite serviceable and even occasionally good over the short run, when we hear a Darin number in its entirety, Spacey’s lack of range becomes apparent, and it helps ruin what should have been the film’s highlight: a dazzlingly fall-colored and sumptuously choreographed dance number set to “Beyond the Sea.”
A fine supporting cast, ranging from Brenda Blethyn as Darin’s mother to John Goodman as one of his stalwart friends and the always game Kate Bosworth as Sandra Dee (whom Darin married in 1960 when she was only 16), does what they can with the fractured script that turns embarrassing long before the agonizingly drawn-out finish. Spacey has guts as a director, that’s for sure, and he definitely displays more talent here than he did in his directorial debut: the lamentable 1996 wannabe noir “Albino Alligator”. He’s smart enough to play some of the fractious marital discord between Darin and Dee for comedy, not drawn-out Casino-like melodrama, and takes some brave chances with the film’s chaotic structure. But directorial chutzpah is not nearly enough to save this dull and distant vanity project.
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