The early reviews for Beyond the Sea, the Bobby Darin biopic on which Kevin Spacey did everything save feeding the crew and sweeping the set, have been so hateful that a latecomer to the bashing bash is tempted to head straight for the spiked eggnog and let the man pass without further abuse. (Which is not to say he doesn’t deserve it, but we’ll get to that.) Even Spacey knows he set himself up for all the vitriol by taking on the project, which had passed through the hands of myriad filmmakers (including, most notably, Barry Levinson) for almost two decades before he finally landed it in 1999. In a recent interview to promote the film, he spoke of his struggles to find financing (he had to go to Germany for the dough) and how it was being damned as a “vanity project” before anyone had seen a single reel or heard a single song, performed by the uncanny impressionist with remarkable sincerity. This isn’t just another movie on an actor’s filmography, but a pet project, a love affair, a cause in which he will rescue the man who sang “Mack the Knife” and “Splish Splash” before disappearing into the footnotes of pop-music history. It culminates not just with the release of this movie, but also a just-wrapped concert tour and just-released, Phil Ramone-produced soundtrack album. It’s as though critics take the movie as an affront: Who the hell does Kevin Spacey think he is, anyway? Well, Bobby Darin, duh.
Only the naive will buy Spacey’s speech about how this is just a childhood infatuation wrought big-screen; he says in the soundtrack’s liner notes, “I fell in love with Bobby Darin’s music when I was just a boy,” but a kid’s musical crushes inevitably fade as he grows older. The critic needn’t be a psychologist to see why Spacey really loves this guy: Darin, running from an inevitable early death from rheumatic fever (of which a doctor warned him when he was just a little boy), jammed everything he could into his life, not only singing in a handful of different genres and becoming, for an instant, bigger than Sinatra, but also acting (he was Oscar-nominated for Captain Newman, MD), marrying the movie star everyone wanted but none could claim (Sandra Dee), and even writing, directing, producing, and scoring a movie of his own, The Vendors, which was so dreadful (according to Darin’s own son, Dodd) it was never released. Spacey, the would-be song-and-dance man, regards Darin as a Renaissance man, the guy who had it all and did it all, and wants to be spoken of in the same breath. He is mythmaker and now myth-taker, borrowing someone else’s story to reinvent his own.
And Lord knows Spacey needs reinvention — that, or a new agent. His recent filmography is littered with admirable missteps (The Shipping News) and appalling mistakes (Pay It Forward, K-Pax, and The Life of David Gale), and our patience for him wears as thin as one of Darin’s toupees. Spacey may have once loved Darin, but now he really needs him: Playing Bobby, whose vaudeville-bred mother (played in the movie by Brenda Blethyn, barking as if she’s from da Bronx) taught her sickly boy how to sing and dance with a smile through his short life, allows him to charm an audience that had grown tired of him. He’s such an inimitable mimic, and bears such an uncanny resemblance to Darin, it’s even possible to be wowed and wooed by Spacey slithering around to a lounge lizard’s soundtrack.
The problem is, there ain’t much to Darin or his story — at least, not as Spacey has chosen to tell it, using Darin’s inner child (actually his younger self, ugh, played by William Ullrich) as a guide through the cleared minefield. By offering up the feel-good version, a movie you can hum along to, his biopic serves only as a giant question mark; why bother if you’re going to excise the interesting and naughty bits (an early version of the screenplay references his affection for orgies post-Sandra Dee, and Spacey never mentions their divorce or his troubled, short second marriage) to glorify a footnote? Spacey can jazz it up all he wants, with MGM-styled musical numbers in which a monologue turns into a performance of “Beyond the Sea” as he courts Sandra (played by Kate Bosworth, who looks throughout the movie as if she wants to flee). But ultimately, the corpse needs more than jazz hands to slap us in the face and keep us awake — or from laughing out loud.
But what ultimately dooms Beyond the Sea is how torpid it feels, especially when Spacey bogs us down in Darin’s protest-folk period; he caves to the genre’s worst banalities and clichés, underscored when muttered in self-serious voiceover (“While it looked like Bobby Kennedy might heal the country, Sandy and I drifted farther and farther apart”). The whole affair — which also includes John Goodman as Bobby’s manager and Bob Hoskins as his brother-in-law, two actors who should never be used in a single sitting — winds up being kinda laughable and kinda pitiable. Don’t hate Kevin Spacey for making Beyond the Sea, but you can feel sorry for him.