Beyond the SeaReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 12/29/04 09:18:19
A few months ago, I criticized the Cole Porter biopic “De-Lovely” because it kept making stabs at transcending the boundaries of the genre with a more surrealistic approach without ever fully committing to such an approach-the result was an uncomfortable blend of the banal and the bizarre. Now I am faced with “Beyond the Sea”, another musical biography, this time chronicling the life of crooner Bobby Darin, and one that fully embraces a more radical storytelling approach. However, it does so in the most deranged, off-putting matter that all it winds up succeeding at doing in the end in my mind was proving once again that old adage about being careful regarding what you wish for.In telling the story of Darin, who overcame the childhood heart disease that was supposed to kill him by the age of 15 to become the popular singer of such tunes as “Splish-Splash” and “Dream Lover”, the Oscar-nominated star of such films as “Captain Newman M.D.” and the husband of teen queen Sandra Dee, “Beyond the Sea” eschews a straightforward biographical approach for a more surreal conceit; the idea here is that Darin, who died in 1973, is directing and starring in a film version of his life and what we see on-screen veers between what happened in his mind and what really happened. (As he puts it, “Memories are like moonbeams-we do with them what we need.”) This isn’t necessarily a bad idea for a film (Bob Fosse employed a similar tactic brilliantly in his semi-autobiographical “All That Jazz”), but it doesn’t work here because it never feels like the natural way to tell the story. It appears to have been conceived for only one reason-to help explain why Kevin Spacey, who is currently eight years older than Darrin was when he passed away, is playing the role.
What kind of director would cast Spacey, a brilliant actor but one far too old for the role, to play Darrin? Well, that would also be Spacey as well. Over the years, many people have tried to bring Darrin’s life to the screen (at one point, director Barry Levinson and writer James Toback planned on doing such a film as a follow-up to “Bugsy”) but it was Spacey who finally acquired both the rights to his story and the clout to eventually get it filmed. Having achieved that, he wasn’t about to give up the chance to play his dream part just because he was far too visibly old for it. Therefore, the incredibly arch structure, which also includes Darin being visited by a youthful incarnation encouraging him to tell the truth about his life, was developed so that he could achieve his dream of being filmed singing “Mack the Knife”.
Even though he admittedly tries to confront the age problem upfront (a reporter on the set of the “movie” flat-out asks “Isn’t he too old to play the part?”), the problem with “Beyond the Sea” is that the structure winds up doing the very thing that it was devised to prevent-it calls attention to the sheer weirdness of having Spacey in the role. If it had been told in a more conventional manner, it might have been strange for a few minutes but if it had been a good film, viewers would have overlooked it as they became involved in the film (as they did when Anthony Hopkins played Richard Nixon). Here, the artificial structure does nothing but shatter its own reality and reminds viewers that they are watching a movie-and a strangely miscast one to boot. At times, Spacey seems to be deliberately pushing his luck-there are many discussions about hairpieces and at one point, Sandra Dee’s mother points out to him that “What you need is an older woman”.
Of course, matters aren’t helped by the fact that the film itself, regardless of the conceit, isn’t that strong either. The great romance between Darin and Dee (Kate Bosworth) seems sketched in; we never get any sense of their grand passion and their conflicts-she drinks too much and he is convinced that Hollywood is laughing because Warren Beatty is dating Leslie Caron while he is married to Tammy (of course, Warren Beatty didn’t hit it big singing “Splish-Splash”, but I digress)-appear all too arbitrarily. There is also no real flow to how his career is depicted-there is no sense of his rise or fall during the 1960’s (when his style of entertainment fell out of favor) and his attempted comeback as a protest singer seems a bit too contrived to really work. (Let’s just say that Spacey is a bigger fan of “If I Was a Carpenter” than I am.)Although handsomely mounted and filled with good actors (the cast also includes such reliables as John Goodman, Bob Hoskins and Brenda Blethyn), “Beyond the Sea” is basically an admittedly ambitious conceptual nightmare that has been created because Spacey wanted his Bobby Darin impression to be immortalized of film forever. The hell of it is that while the movie itself is fairly bad, the impression is actually pretty damned impressive. Doing his own singing, he does capture the essence of Darin’s recordings and the best scenes in the film, in fact, are the one where we just see him belting out tunes. With some films, you see the movie and buy the soundtrack-this is one where you can easily skip the first part without missing a thing.
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