Movie review by Greg Carlson
A spectacularly narcissistic vanity project, “Beyond the Sea” was overshadowed by several other recent biopics when first released, most notably “Ray,” for which Jamie Foxx won a Best Actor Academy Award. Kevin Spacey, who plays pop crooner Bobby Darin with a look on his face indicating that he thought he might win another Oscar, miscalculated both his own and Darin’s current popularity with audiences. Staged as a weird meta-memoir, in which pre-teen and adult versions of Darin occupy the screen at the same time as well as converse and sing with each other, “Beyond the Sea” is nothing if not compellingly strange.
Much has been made about Spacey’s age-inappropriate unsuitability to play someone who died at 37. Considering the fact that he is not only the movie’s star, but the director, the credited co-screenwriter, one of the producers, and performs Darin’s vocals as well, it goes without saying that he is darn well going to do whatever he wishes to do with this story. Spacey shamelessly molds the film to deflect expected criticism, providing a laundry list of obsessive choices which include kicking things off with “Mack the Knife” and addressing both the issue of his maturity and his receding hairline.
Despite the attempt to spice things up with a slightly unorthodox approach to the recounting of how things “really” happened (or didn’t), “Beyond the Sea” is hamstrung by the same complaints that hobble virtually every biographical film: the tendency to provide a series of greatest hits in a reductive glossing-over of a life. Most, but certainly not all of Darin’s dossier is covered, including the childhood bout with rheumatic fever that weakened his heart, the initial climb up the pop charts with “Splish Splash,” the desire to compete with Sinatra, and the less than fairytale marriage to teen movie princess Sandra Dee.
Spacey builds his Darin as a well-oiled show-biz machine racing against the clock that is so observably symbolized by his bad ticker. Certainly the strong suit of “Beyond the Sea” is the generous smattering of Darin classics, navigated mostly with aplomb by a fearless Spacey. Of course, many Darin fans will only be reminded of how much they miss the real thing, but Spacey can be commended for the results of his single-minded fixation when it comes to the tunes. Sometimes, the garish staging pushes the numbers into camp, but it must be said that the music is the one thing that emerges from the film with little damage.
The same cannot be said for Spacey’s costars, who seem to be included largely for ornamentation. Almost giving new meaning to the term supporting players, talented vets like John Goodman, Bob Hoskins, and Brenda Blethyn all perform characters whose function seems to be to fawn over every move Darin makes, and Kate Bosworth, as Dee, is so poorly utilized she makes her work in “Blue Crush” seem like a virtual Actor’s Studio clinic. It doesn’t help that Spacey and Bosworth are separated in age by nearly a quarter of a century; the inevitable deflowering scene, which involves a giant sword and a slimy Darin speech about the Knights of the Round Table, boggles the mind. Is “Beyond the Sea” so bad it’s good? It is difficult to say, but that scene at least screams yes and yes and yes.
This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 5/23/05.