AT A DINNER party, the host asks everyone to listen to his or her amateurish piano recital or first-time poem. Or his daughter's home-recorded CD -- the one full of tortured anguish and distorted power chords. You and your fellow guests fall into a tense hush, fully aware of the rules. You will applaud this piece no matter what. No grimacing. No eye rolling. No looking at your watch. Just wait for it to stop and then clap vociferously.
"Beyond the Sea" feels like one of those situations, except stretched into almost two hours. This vainglorious biopic about Bobby Darin is really about what the '60s pop singer and actor means to Kevin Spacey, who co-produces, co-writes, directs, stars in, dances and sings his way through this movie. You hear the name "Bobby Darin" all the time, but you always imagine you hear "Kevin Spacey" instead.
Kevin Spacey, center, plays Bobby Darin in "Beyond the Sea," a biopic about the song-and-dance man also starring Kate Bosworth as Sandra Dee.
(Jay Maidment -- Lions Gate Films)
To be fair, Spacey's rendition of Darin is right on the imitative money. He sings the entire soundtrack, almost nuance for nuance, like Darin. But the movie never goes beyond Spacey's parlor tricks. Nor does it solve the central problem of a forty-something actor (Spacey) with prosthetic nose enhancement playing a star (Darin) whose heyday was in his twenties.
Remember Woody Allen in "Annie Hall" returning to his grade school class as an adult, appearing with a childhood version of himself in the same scene? This is essentially what Spacey does in "Beyond." Except the tone isn't comic, it's deadly serious. And that's part of the problem.
Spacey plays an older Darin looking back at his life and making a movie about it. But Darin is having doubts about this film, worried that it's not telling the truth about his life. So he halts the umpteenth take of a soundstage performance of his big hit "Mack the Knife" and walks off the set, lured away by the child actor (William Ullrich) playing Darin as a boy. It turns out this child actor really is the spirit of the younger Darin and intends to take Darin through some real memories.
"You want some truth?" says this boy with a magical flick of his finger. "I'll give you some truth."
Cue the rest of the movie, which retells Darin's life with song-and-dance numbers, fantasy sequences and realism. The child actor plays Darin in the childhood scenes and Spacey's Darin is Darin in his twenties and older. (The real Darin died at 37.) The story starts with Walden Robert Cassotto, a 15-year-old Italian kid from the Bronx, who's told he's going to die because of heart damage sustained by rheumatic fever. Assuming his days are numbered, Walden learns how to sing, play and dance from his mother (Brenda Blethyn), who used to be a performer.
Walden stays alive, changes his name and becomes a star. The hits come in rapid succession, including "Splish Splash" and "Mack the Knife." And throughout his short-lived career, he's supported by his older sister, Nina (Caroline Aaron); her husband, Charlie (Bob Hoskins); and his friend and manager, Steve (John Goodman).
Darin turns to moviemaking and immediately falls in love (on the set of the 1961 "Come September") with co-star Sandra Dee (a fine Kate Bosworth). A tempestuous marriage begins, with Dee turning to drink after realizing she's a distant second to her husband's relentless ambition. When Darin finds himself washed up by pop's embrace of rock music, he tries to reinvent himself as an anti-Vietnam war protest singer. He also learns some shattering revelations from Nina which make him reassess everything. In the end, he realizes that people only want to hear the old Bobby. And although he has defeated death as a child, his health remains an overriding concern; performing continually exhausts him.
An older Darin revisiting himself makes an intriguing conceit by co-writers Spacey and Lewis Colick (who aren't even credited on the Lion's Gate official Web site), not to mention a canny way to shoehorn Spacey into his pet project. (Although it echoes, all too closely, the movie "De-Lovely," in which an aging Cole Porter, played by Kevin Kline, also looks back over his life.) But there isn't a moment that feels convincing. We have no sense that Darin was anything more than another entertainer. What did he bring to American pop culture other than -- judging by this movie, anyway -- a determination to beat a childhood disease, make his mom proud and be bigger than Sinatra? By comparison, "Ray" is about someone (Ray Charles) who not only transcended blindness and racism but redefined America's perceptions of music and race. So there we are, again, in that discomforting dinner party scene, waiting for our cue to signal our appreciation, which is really nothing but relief.
BEYOND THE SEA (PG-13, 118 minutes) -- Contains obscenity and sexual situations. Area theaters.