December 26, 2004

MOVIES: Beyond the Sea (Kevin Spacey, 2004)

Kevin Spacey's biography of Bobby Darin -- Spacey wrote, directed, produced, plays the lead, and probably did the catering -- finally reaches the screen, and it's a moderately entertaining mess.

The biggest problem, of course, is casting the mid-40s Spacey as Darin, whose career peak came during his 20s and who died at 37. Spacey tries to finesse the problem with his framing device, in which we see Darin directing and starring in the movie of his own life, presumably from some sort of afterlife; it's the high-tech version of what we saw earlier this year in De-Lovely. It works better here, mainly because the Darin/director figure doesn't pop into the action as frequently as the Cole Porter/director figure pops into De-Lovely; once Spacey's established the device, the movie becomes a relatively straightforward biopic. We return to that fantasy frame only occasionally, generally when Darin is visited by himself as a child (William Ullrich is a bit too precocious as young Bobby).

All of the major narrative points of Darin's life are dutifully checked off -- childhood rheumatic fever, early pop success, struggle to escape the teen idol box, acting success, fade into irrelevance, late-life comeback (of sorts) -- and Spacey doesn't ever manage to convince us that Darin's life goes beyond the standard showbiz rags-to-riches story in any way that's particularly meaningful or important.

So since what we're getting is just another variation on that standard showbiz tale, all that matters is whether the story's told in an entertaining fashion, and for the most part, it is. Spacey is surrounded by a talented cast: Kate Bosworth as Sandra Dee (it's in the Darin-Dee courtship sequence that Spacey's age is the biggest problem; Bosworth is 20 years younger than Spacey, and it's impossible to see them as contemporaries), John Goodman as Darin's manager, Brenda Blethyn and Caroline Aaron as the women who raised him (Blethyn is especially good in her few early scenes).

Spacey sings and dances well, and he gets the style and the attitude right (he's aided greatly by the fact that the Darin family allowed him to use the original band arrangements), but he sounds nothing like Bobby Darin, and it seems a bit pointless to tell Darin's life story without ever letting us hear Darin's voice.

The other major problem is that the movie's tone veers all over the place. Most of the movie is naturalistic, but Caroline Aaron's performance borders on camp, as does that of Greta Scacchi, unrecognizable as Dee's mother, and a scene in which Darin and Dee argue about which will leave the other wallows in it.

Beyond the Sea isn't an awful movie, and you'll probably have fun watching it, but Spacey's vanity -- the insistence on playing a role he's much too old for, the refusal to let us hear the singing of the man he so greatly admires -- keeps it from being a great one.

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