One has to admire Kevin Spacey’s chutzpah in portraying Bobby Darin on the big screen in Beyond the Sea. And while there’s more here than chutzpah to admire—the brassy, invigorating recreations of pop standards by the John Wilson Orchestra, and the fact that Spacey does his own singing and dancing, both of them extremely well—the movie succeeds at being a memorable, lovingly made failure.
Spacey also directs the film, and he cribs shamelessly from Bob Fosse’s masterwork All That Jazz while missing, of course, an interior quality that can’t be stolen. At least twice, Spacey‘s mise-en-scène juxtaposes a brightly performed song on the soundtrack with images of the artist inhaling through an oxygen mask or being carried off on a gurney. Or worse, the star changes into a tux as he leaves his mother’s funeral, the chapel doors opening onto his entrance at the Copacabana.
Genuinely annoying, however, is the “knowing irony” Spacey incessantly deploys in his voice-over commentary or in exchanges with others. “It’s a fantasy sequence,” the adult Bobby informs the on-looking kid Bobby (the 11-year-old William Ullrich) after an exceptionally stiff demonstration of dancing in the streets. And the structure of Beyond the Sea—a conceit that Darin was starring in and editing a movie version of his life—allows abrupt shifts between past and present a la A Christmas Carol, between set-ups of what we think we’re watching and cutaways that underscore the fakery of it all. Dancing in the streets—I’m in favor of it, at the movies or elsewhere—has to spring from some sort of recognizable euphoria. The dancing has to have a spontaneous, giddy madness to spark pleasure in us, too. The studied perfection of Beyond the Sea’s first dance number, a rendition of “Some of These Days” on a Berlin soundstage that’s supposed to be a Bronx neighborhood, lacks that. So then when Spacey says, “It’s a fantasy sequence,” as if any of us in the dark need him to point this out, I felt a sense of déjà vu, a visitation from the Spirit of Bad Movies Past, all replete with the “knowing irony” that knows almost everything except how to tell a story compellingly.
Besides postmodern clichés, Spacey falls back on Paleolithic ones as well: smashing expensive objects in order to express rage. Spacey’s Darin, after an Oscar night spat with wife Sandra Dee (a believable—and lovely—Kate Bosworth), takes a golf club to his car, and in a later scene splinters his LPs to bits. Does anyone do this except in the movies? The rest of us certainly can’t afford such extremes, or such bad cinema.
Yet for these missteps, Beyond the Sea works occasional magic. Director Spacey’s best sequence is a flirtation montage set to the title song, in which he dons a canary yellow sports coat to woo Sandra Dee. Rob Ashford’s choreography breezes to life in this sequence: Spacey seems never more fully in character than dancing before a fountain as a crew of dark suits dances behind him. When the women join the men, cinematographer Eduardo Serra gives us an aerial perspective on the whirling couples, and the women’s multi-hued, wide, billowing skirts resemble spinning tops in Easter egg colors.
With the exception of Greta Scaachi, misdirected to overact as Sandra’s harridan stage mother, the other performances are fine. Bob Hoskins brings his customary tough grace to the underwritten role of Darin’s brother-in-law Charlie, and Caroline Aaron, who elevates gaucheness to high art, has a few wonderfully vulgar moments as Darin’s older sister Nina.
Already a Broadway hoofer at age 11, William Ullrich, who plays Bobby Darin as a child, possesses an uncanny gift for seeming at once erudite and innocent. The way Spacey writes and directs the shadow character of “Little Bobby” creates an unintended effect (I’ll just assume it’s unintentional) of eeriness. Pale, little Bobby with the jet-black hair keeps popping up throughout the film, from behind curtains or suddenly materialized in the frame. In the first meeting between the two selves, the kid shouts at his adult counterpart, “I am you!” This could be a phantasmagoric homage to All About Eve, yet I was more reminded of The Last Temptation of Christ, of the conversations between Jesus and an austere, winsomely beautiful little girl who ultimately hits him up with, “We’ve both done well,” and then you know she’s the Devil. – NPT
December 15, 2004