Beyond the Sea
Director : Kevin Spacey
Screenplay : Kevin Spacey and Lewis Colick
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2004
Stars : Kevin Spacey (Bobby Darin), Kate Bosworth (Sandra Dee), John Goodman (Steve Blauner), Bob Hoskins (Charlie Cassotto Maffia), Brenda Blethyn (Polly Cassotto), Greta Scacchi (Mary Duvan), Caroline Aaron (Nina Cassotto Maffia), Peter Cincotti (Dick Behrke), Michael Byrne (Dr. Andretti), Matt Rippy (David Gershenson), Gary Whelan (Jules Podell), William Ullrich (Little Bobby)
The nearly unavoidable first reaction to Kevin Spacey’s Beyond the Sea, a musical biopic of pop crooner Bobby Darin, is that it’s little more than an ego project for its director/cowriter/producer/star. After all, with all the fascinating real-life subjects awaiting cinematic treatment, Darin would hardly top many people’s list. And, while the film has its positives, it is hard to get past that knee-jerk first reaction, especially when you see Spacey, clearly two decades too old to be playing the baby-faced singer (who died at age 37, which Spacey passed eight years ago), trying to channel Darin’s ambition without turning him into an unlikable cad.
Spacey clearly saw this criticism coming, which is likely why he and cowriter Lewis Colick frame the film with a self-reflexive narrative device in which Darin, alive and well, is making a biopic about himself--ostensibly the one we see on-screen--and having to field criticisms about his lack of critical distance and the fact that he’s too old to play himself. Although Spacey may have been aware that critical distance is a problem, he was not able to overcome. In interviews he has professed a nearly lifelong fascination with Darin, and making a film about him has been a dream of Spacey’s for years. Unfortunately, “Dream Project” is becoming shorthand in Hollywood for impending disaster, as lately it has been associated with long-gestating projects whose roadblocks probably existed for a reason. One only has to look to Oliver Stone’s Alexander (2004) and Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002) for examples of great directors dragged down by their misguided dreams.
Unfortunately, Spacey is not a filmmaker on par with either Stone or Scorsese. As his sophomore effort (his first film was 1996’s Albino Alligator), Beyond the Sea is certainly technically competent, and Spacey stages the song-and-dance numbers with a dash of giddy, old Hollywood throwback style. Beyond that, though, there’s nothing particularly memorable about the film. Although he and editor Trevor Waite come up with some clever transition devices (like dissolving from the mechanics of a recording studio to those of a hospital, the two things that ruled Darin’s life) and the narrative slides cleanly between fantasy and reality, none of it has any real zing.
The film traces Darin, born Robert Walden Cassotto, from his childhood in the Bronx in the 1930s, where he was doted on by his loving mother (Brenda Blethyn) who recognized her son’s talent and told him early on that he would be “bigger than Sinatra, through his professional life as an early rock’n’roll teen idol, then as a staple of the club circuit, and finally his rebirth as a jean-clad folk singer in the late 1960s. Darin’s marriage to the squeaky-clean teenage movie star Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth) is a central part of the story, but it’s strangely airless, not to mention a bit unintentionally salacious since Spacey is clearly so much older when he should be only a few years Dee’s senior. We don’t get much of a sense of their love for each other, even though a final coda at the end of the film goes so far as to say that Dee was in love with Darin for the rest of her life, implying this as the reason why she never remarried after they broke up.
The narrative framework Spacey establishes allows him a great deal of latitude in recreating Darin’s life. For one, it allows him to use the visual and aural shorthand of the musical to condense action, such as Darin’s mother turning him on to music or Darin romantically wooing Sandra Dee. Unfortunately, the musical setpieces don’t have much psychological depth, so they merely divert where they should inform. The narrative also lets Spacey use strained contrivances like having Darin interact with his younger self (William Ullrich) in reflecting on both his own life and how the film should be made. At one point, Darin tells his childhood self, “Memories are like moonbeams. We do with them what we want,” which is a perfectly inane metonym for the film as a whole because its treacly faux poetry sounds good on the surface, but makes no real sense. In what way can we “do what we want” with moonbeams? And, more importantly, is this simply a way for Spacey to defend any indulgences he might have in elevating Darin beyond his historical stature?
This, ultimately, is the film’s central problem. Spacey is enraptured with Darin and feels the need to make his star burn brighter. Darin was certainly an important figure in the development of pop music, something many music scholars have arrived at rather belatedly, but he is hardly the tragic artiste Spacey makes him out to be. Beyond the Sea constantly tries to illustrate how Darin was a victim of various outside forces--a music industry with narrow vision, a fanbase who couldn’t grow with him, his own weakened heart, damaged by rheumatic fever as a child--thus his arrogance and ruthless drive for success are supposed to be acceptable. After all, he wasn’t supposed to live past age 15, thus his simply breathing each day is a miracle in and of itself.
As Darin, Spacey does a credible job dramatically, but he never disappears into the character the way, say, Leonardo DiCaprio does as Howard Hughes in The Aviator. He is always Kevin Spacey-as-Bobby Darin, never just Bobby Darin. When it’s time for singing and dancing, though, Spacey turns it on, which unfortunately feeds into the perception that the film exists largely as a showcase for his many talents (Look! I can direct! I can act! I can even sing and dance!) He sings Darin’s well-known songs extremely well, and there is no doubt that he is a gifted vocalist with great range. However, the performance is never much more than an impression, and, if given the choice, I’ll take Spacey’s hilarious, spot-on impression of Christopher Walken over Bobby Darin any day.
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
All images copyright ©2004 Lions Gate Films