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BEYOND THE SEA (PG-13) (2004)

Lions Gate Films

Official Site

Director: Kevin Spacey

Producers: Jan Fantl, Arthur E. Friedman, Andy Paterson, Kevin Spacey

Written by: Lewis Colick, Kevin Spacey

Cast: Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, John Goodman, Bob Hoskins, Brenda Blethyn, Greta Scacchi, Caroline Aaron, Peter Cincotti, William Ullrich


Kevin Spacey, who produced, co-wrote, directed, and starred in this cinematic recounting of the life of crooning night club legend Bobby Darin apparently harbors much adulation for the man. That’s all well and good; we all have heroes. Spacey, however, is a Hollywood bigshot with more clout in the crags of his dimples than the rest of us have in our entire unimportant bodies. Because of this, Spacey was granted the opportunity to make a movie about someone he greatly admires. Woefully, the story of Bobby Darin, even after the obligatory Hollywood maudlin bath, just isn’t that interesting a tale.

In dead-entertainer Valhalla, Bobby Darin (Spacey) is making a movie about his life. Unsure of where, exactly, to begin, Darin asks the kid playing young Bobby Darin (the annoyingly self-aware Ullrich) for his opinion. The kid, who it turns out actually is young Bobby Darin and not an actor playing young Bobby Darin (I’ll try to explain later, although I’m not sure if any explanation truly exists), suggests beginning the film by detailing the struggles of Darin’s impoverished, rheumatic fever-stricken childhood. Darin’s mother (Aaron), an old vaudevillian, infuses her son with a love of song and passes on to him those zany dance moves. With his passion for showbiz and his desire to out-Sinatra Sinatra working like a massive antibody to battle his physical frailty, Darin sets out for Manhattan. Soon, he’s represented by novice manager Steve Blauner (Goodman, ever-tubby). After the requisite initial failure, Darin pens the lyrically inane but improbably infectious megahit “Splish Splash” (as in “I was taking a bath”) and quickly attains stardom. Unhappy with mere teen idol-hood, Darin seemingly effortlessly conceives edgier, classier material, such as “Mack the Knife” and “Beyond the Sea,” and, ravenously hoping his celebrity will increase still, tries his hand at acting. While on the set of Come September, Darin meets and romances the naïve and nymph-like Sandra Dee (Bosworth), whom he rapidly marries. After seducing her on their wedding night with an anecdote about King Arthur and the production of a longsword from nowhere, the media darling couple settles into the quibbling routines of marriage, which ultimately leads to a reduced touring schedule for Darin and his gradual decline from fame. But, after a brief and embarrassing descent into hippiedom, Darin recaptures his essence, conveniently, before perishing from his chronically weak ticker (subtly symbolized in the film by a ticking, then not ticking, wristwatch). And there’s an out-of-leftfield familial revelation toward the end to ratchet up the tension. Darin dies a happy man, however, with a wife who, despite their differences, loved him and, to my knowledge, a musical legacy that has come nowhere close to being forgotten.

Which is the most urgent problem with Beyond the Sea: It tells the rather unremarkable story of an entertainer whose life was not terribly dramatic, nor was his work ever in danger of vanishing into obscurity. When compared to the life of Ray Charles, whose biopic is currently also on display at your local cineplex, one must question what the exigency is in telling Darin’s tale. Ray Charles conquered blindness; Bobby Darin conquered… a receding hairline? Spacey is an undeniable Darin-aholic, but there isn’t one aspect of the musician’s life, as chronicled here, which can be categorized as extraordinary. Darin’s health matters never appear urgent. His rags-to-riches achievement of the American Dream is blasé. His romance with Sandra Dee is slipshod and underdeveloped, as are his family troubles, and his pensive, soul-searching period is sappy to the point of being comical (it’s difficult to feel too much sympathy for a rich man who is also married to a beautiful actress). The only thing at which Darin appeared to excel was gushing sheer arrogance like hemophiliacs do blood. If that’s the only criterion for a man’s life to be dramatized for an audience, I’d next like to nominate Jose Canseco for cinematic treatment.

One might forgive Spacey’s choice of subject if his directorial and stylistic choices were interesting, but he falters on those counts, too. As alluded to earlier in this review, the beyond-the-grave/posthumous-movie-of-Darin’s-life framing device is muddled and incomprehensible. The film begins with Darin on-set, tinkering with the project as it’s being made, but as his sequential narrative unfolds the audience never returns to Darin working on his life-film, and the device is mysteriously, confusingly dropped. Similarly, Darin’s younger incarnation, Little Bobby (as he’s billed in the credits), is enigmatically often present to observe events and sometimes interact with objects in older Darin’s narrative, harkening back to the film’s set-up. But since no concrete explanation is given as to what purpose Little Bobby serves (other than blatantly spoon-feeding the audience schmaltz), his bizarre presence in the film is distracting and altogether unnecessary. One must acknowledge Spacey’s attempt to tell the story in a unique manner, with Darin’s posthumous reflection and his child-self guiding him throughout his life (at least that’s what I assume is happening). It is indefensible how Spacey and his co-writer failed to develop these elements. Beyond the Sea is imminently unsure of its classification as drama or fantasy bombast, as its numerous, spontaneous song-and-dance sequences attest. To pour more proverbial salt into the audience’s wounds, Spacey never exhibits confidence or originality behind the camera. His unimpressive stabs at trick shots and in-camera effects smack of Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind (helmed with much more class by fellow actor George Clooney) or Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, and his inability to infuse any visual style into a supernaturally tinged film about the King of Cool in the insane 1960s reeks of wasted opportunity.

In his defense, Spacey is a hoot to watch as Darin, singing, strutting, and high-kicking awkwardly like an arrogant but talented entertainer. The rest of the cast is almost anonymous behind Spacey’s bravado and their underwritten roles, which is yet another indication of how challenging it must have been to bring Darin’s rather dull life to the screen. It is no wonder, then, that Beyond the Sea is so uninteresting.

—Nathan Baran

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