A Sweet Reprise

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Kevin Spacey dispenses with three crucial questions in the opening scene of "Beyond the Sea," which he directed and in which he stars as the singer Bobby Darin.

To "Can he direct," Spacey rejoins with a nervy riff on Martin Scorsese's famous tracking shot in the Copacabana in "GoodFellas."

Then Spacey -- who insisted on doing all his own singing -- lets loose a thoroughly convincing "Mack the Knife," Darin's hallmark tune and the one that most filmgoers will be waiting skeptically to see if he nails.

Moments later, pulling back one of several film-within-a-film scrims that rise and fall throughout "Beyond the Sea," Spacey's Darin overhears someone say he's too old to play himself in the movie of his life. (No such movie ever existed, although Darin had reportedly commissioned several scripts for such a project.)

Can Spacey direct? Yes, he can. Unlike so many movie-of-the-week biopics that are so steeped in maudlin voyeurism they virtually reek of formaldehyde, "Beyond the Sea" is artfully structured, combining old-school MGM-type musical numbers with occasional postmodern flourishes to keep the narrative moving. And Spacey can indeed sing; from "Dream Lover" to the title song -- and so many in between -- his impression of Darin is spookily on point. (He's also a passable dancer, and he has Darin's shrugging, hepcat stage presence down pat.)

But the guy in the opening scene is right. Spacey is too old to play Darin, who was 37 when he died in 1973. Spacey, at 45, is a wonderful actor, but nobody's that good. As entertaining as it always is to watch Spacey -- and he's nothing if not watchable in "Beyond the Sea" -- it's just about impossible to buy him as a 20-year-old kid becoming an overnight sensation with the novelty hit "Splish Splash." If he becomes more convincing as Darin ages, he's more like a young Gene Hackman than a not-quite-middle-aged Darin. He never quite conveys how young the singer was when he died after heart surgery, after a stunningly brief career that included hits spanning myriad musical genres, an indefatigable touring schedule and an Oscar nomination.

Aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, there's actually much to commend in "Beyond the Sea." If Spacey's age problem proves an insurmountable distraction for literalists and Darin fans, his admirers will no doubt relish the chance to watch him sing, dance and basically take over the screen for two hours; Spacey may be a flawed choice as Darin but he's fantastic as himself. And as a filmmaker, he presents the facts of Darin's life with efficiency and verve, starting with the singer's Bronx childhood as Walden Robert Cassotto, his early bouts with rheumatic fever, his devotion to his mom (a former vaudevillian played by Brenda Blethyn) and, later, his political activism and his attempts to reinvent himself when the world changed from the aquamarine '60s to the earth-toned '70s.

Indeed, "Beyond the Sea" sags only when it comes to Darin's marriage to Sandra Dee, whom he met while filming "Come September" and who was 16 when the couple wed in 1960. Inevitably, the egos of these two hot young performers would clash -- it was her Cosmo cover vs. his Life spread -- and Dee would drown her frustrations in martinis while Darin set off on yet another club tour. None of it's terribly interesting, in part because, at least on film, unhappy marriages tend to blur into the banality of screaming fights and tearful reunions, and in part because Kate Bosworth, who plays Dee, isn't actress enough to stand up to Spacey's far greater range and control. The Darin-Dee scenes are also those most fraught with cliche, including the movie line most eligible for moratorium: "God you're beautiful."

It's a shame that Spacey focused on the marriage at the expense of what motivated Darin as an artist; it would have been more interesting to see how Darin came to record a song from an opera by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, for example, than simply to hear the song accompanying a relatively by-the-numbers montage. But Spacey was probably correct in concluding that more filmgoers would want to see a movie about a guy and a blonde than about an artist who brought a signature big-band swing to pop music and a hip rock-and-roll groove to otherwise toothless standards.

At a time when celebrity biopics are all the rage in Hollywood -- and the more floridly dysfunctional, self-destructive and tragic the better -- perhaps the most radical thing about "Beyond the Sea" is its insistently optimistic tone. As befits this labor of love, Spacey has chosen to portray Darin not as a tortured soul but as a man who is reconciled -- to his conflicting artistic aspirations, to his wife and son, and with the mother issues that bedeviled him for most of his life. Thanks to Spacey, Darin might be a little older in the collective imagination than he should be but he's also, happily, a stand-up guy.

Beyond the Sea (118 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for language and sensuality.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company