First of all, the most interesting thing about Kevin Spacey’s Bobby Darin biopic, Beyond the Sea, is its weird similarities with Irwin Winkler’s De-Lovely. I suppose it’s instructive that where it once took three men — director Winkler, screenwriter Jay Cocks and star Kevin Kline — to bring Cole Porter to the screen — Spacey does it all himself. That makes the movie either a committed personal statement or one of the great vanity projects of all time.
Spacey has claimed that the film is not “linear,” neither what people expect nor a biopic. He says that it’s his “statement.” Sounds pretty ominous, doesn’t it? But don’t be too alarmed: Beyond the Sea is not quite as artsy as such statements might indicate.
The nonlinear approach here doesn’t amount to much more than a framing story with flashbacks, an approach hasn’t been too taxing for most viewers since the 1930s. And it’s exactly the method — right down to providing the protagonist with someone to discuss his life with — used in De-Lovely.
Where the aged Porter had his life presented to him — and sometimes dissected — by what appears to be the angel Gabriel (fresh, one assumes, from killing vampires in Van Helsing), Spacey’s Darin examines his life with the help of the kid (newcomer William Ullrich) who plays his younger self in a mythical film they are both appearing in. That’s the most daring twist in Spacey’s nonlinear structure: He presents himself playing Darin as Darin plays himself in a movie about his own life.
It’s a clever conceit, one that might have opened the film up to some pretty interesting approaches, but Spacey’s technique is born more of self-justification than artistic instinct. The scenario is a setup for someone to remark that Darin is too old to be playing himself, thereby allowing Darin’s brother-in-law to snap, “He was born to play this part, and you damn well know it!”
Well, that’s one way to excuse the 44-year-old Spacey playing a man who died at the age of 37, although whether it really rectifies Spacey playing the teenage Darin is another matter. (Then again, if the 63-year-old George Arliss could play Alexander Hamilton from his 20s to his 40s — without the apology of a framing story — then I suppose Spacey must be allowed similar license.)
But apart from trying to stave off a lawsuit from Darin’s widow, Sandra Dee (played in the film by Kate Bosworth, Blue Crush), I’m not entirely clear as to why Spacey claims his movie isn’t a biopic. (Columbia Pictures found an easier way of dealing with the unauthorized depiction of Ruby Keeler in the 1946 The Jolson Story — they renamed her Julie Benson.) The film sure feels and plays like a biopic, and it certainly follows the general outline of Darin’s life — often, one suspects, treating its subject’s self-created myths as fact.
Beyond the Seas is not exactly a bad movie, but it’s more of an interesting effort than an accomplished work. And I’ve no earthly idea what Spacey’s “statement” is, unless it was simply to prove that he can sing and dance; if that’s the case, then he succeeded admirably.
And there’s no denying he’s made some pretty bold moves within the confines of his film, though sometimes at the expense of good sense. The musical-number transformation of young Bobby to Spacey Bobby is a case in point. The idea is clever, but the presentation feels even phonier than Kevin Kline’s occasional outbreaks of singing in De-Lovely (the scene’s not at all helped by a studio street-set that’s so scrupulously clean one suspects Disney World attendants must have been on litter duty).
I suspect that Spacey was going for a retro look and feel, and that’s always dangerous. Here, and in later sequences, Beyond the Sea looks less like a movie about its era than one from its era, complete with tacky production and costume design and a lighting scheme so overly bright that we can’t miss a single detail. Indeed, by the time Spacey appears in a yellow suit, you might wish you’d brought along some sunglasses.
And maybe this overkill is for the best, since it distracts from the fact that Darin’s life story really isn’t all that compelling. Apart from his drive to succeed at any cost, which was seemingly born of his sketchy health (we’re told he wasn’t expected to live past the age of 15), there doesn’t seem to be much to the fellow.
Especially for a movie that’s supposed to be a “statement,” there’s an irony here: The lack of any real artistic commitment on the part of its subject ultimately raises the question of why we need a film about Darin in the first place. The movie is essentially a monument to his struggle against the odds (a theme in just about every biopic ever made) — but to succeed at what, exactly? The only answer I can come up with is to succeed at success. That may be enough for Spacey, but it leaves me kind of cold. I guess if I was convinced that Darin is more than a footnote in the history of pop music, I’d be more sympathetic.
The film gets points for effort, and certainly Spacey gets high marks as a musical performer, but beyond that, this is just another biopic, in a year that’s already given us three other examples of the genre. And while the filmmaking is better than that of Ray (goodness knows the structure isn’t as clunky), the movie is less adventurous than the equally flawed De-Lovely, and it doesn’t even deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Kinsey. Rated PG-13 for some strong language and a scene of sensuality.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke