Beyond the Sea
What would have happened if the late pop idol Bobby Darin had directed and starred in his own film biography? Hyphenated filmmaker Kevin Spacey (star-director-producer-co-writer) has shaped that rumination into the film-within-a-film structure of Beyond the Sea. His resulting valentine to the once-celebrated crooner is a fizzy, pastel cocktail of intoxicating MGM-like musical productions and diluted drama that has a lingering wax-museum aftertaste.
Beyond the Sea begins with a sensational wallop as Spacey flashes his own exceptional vocal credentials as lounge headliner (Spacey does all his own singing and dancing). It then embraces an All That Jazz-like fusion of fantasy and reality that is alternately entertaining and stupefying. Bob Fosse’s Jazz came off as passionate delirium. Spacey’s Sea plays more like exuberant, thinly disguised hero worship.
Forty-five-year-old Spacey attempts to overcome the obvious problems of playing Darin at half his own age and throughout Darin’s career to his death at the age of 37 with a setup that unintentionally reeks of narcissism and that fails to adequately propel or deepen the film. Darin is having problems directing and starring in his own autobiographical film and begins reassessing his past with input from the chilly young actor (William Ullrich) who portrays him as a kid.
The memories soften rather than dissect both characters and snapshots of Darin’s inseparable personal and professional life. All the while, the shadow of Spacey himself (his receding hairline, his insistence of being born to play Darin and his guarded sexuality) falls on the proceedings.
The story takes us back into Darin’s childhood—where he contracts rheumatic fever, which causes permanent heart damage (the doctors predict he will die before reaching 15 years of age)—and it chronologically progresses to his fatal heart failure (a condition that also befell Fosse) in 1973. It shows us the inspiration for Darin changing his name from Walden Robert Cassotto (Spacey’s own real surname is Fowler) and his emergence as a late-1950s teen idol with the release of “Splish Splash” (which he reportedly wrote in 20 minutes just before recording it).
We watch his whirlwind romancing of bubblegum blonde actress Sandra Dee (Blue Crush’s Kate Bosworth) on the Italian set of Come September. We see him triumph at and desegregate the legendary Copacabana, flourish in 1960s Las Vegas, gain Oscar and Grammy recognition, deal with a jarring revelation about his parentage, decline in popularity, get involved in politics and reinvent himself as a socially relevant folksinger. And we get a taste of Darin’s reputation for being cocky. (“I heard you had a mouth on you,” says a club manager. “Save it for singing.”) The story is not overly romanticized but also never develops a compelling dramatic arc.
Spacey, who first heard Darin through his parents’ record collection, is a highly polished actor in a film that needs more grit. He has made a career of artfully shaded contradictions, but here Darin comes off as a rather uninteresting, vanilla personality who lives only to conquer the Copacabana. His character is subservient to his music, which Spacey fortunately elevates to Vincente Minnelli-style homages.
Spacey’s directorial debut, Albino Alligator, was a New Orleans hostage drama that felt more like an actors workshop (the eight principal characters all trapped in one barroom included Gary Sinise, Matt Dillon, Faye Dunaway and The Lord of the Rings’ Viggo Mortensen) than a movie. Beyond the Sea feels more like a showcase for Spacey’s latent lounge talent than a movie as he rips through Darin’s greatest-hits list (including the title tune, “Dream Lover” and “Mack the Knife”). But Spacey gets excellent support from prolific music producer Phil Ramone, arranger Roger Kellaway, cinematographer Eduardo Serra and Tony Award-winning choreographer Rob Ashford.
Beyond the Sea is about both the show and business sides of show business, the finicky personality of audiences, stage-mom tyranny (Dee’s mother here is the personification of the word “overbearing”), fairy-tale romance, marriage on the rocks, conflicting spousal careers and shifting male hairpieces. Darin wanted eventually to be “about something” but was unsatisfied with much of his life. I left the theater feeling the same way about this movie.