Darin biopic lags when Spacey’s not singing

  • By Robert Horton / Herald columnist
  • Tuesday, December 28, 2004 9:00pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

Director-writer-star Kevin Spacey sure looks as though he’s enjoying himself in “Beyond the Sea,” a screen bio of singer Bobby Darin.

Spacey sings, he dances, he bounds around like a month-old puppy. He plants himself in the middle of a chorus line, he kick-steps down a Hollywood back lot street, he swings through the Rat Pack-era Copacabana club.

One-note song: Screen bio of Bobby Darin, the short-lived pop star who married teen queen Sandra Dee. Kevin Spacey directs and plays Darin – with enormous energy – and his one-man band approach focuses on the music, which is fine, rather than drama, which is not.

Rated: PG-13 rating is for language, subject matter.

Now showing: Metro, Uptown.

His energy is unbounded, although it can’t disguise the rudimentary movie going on around him. “Beyond the Sea” is a one-man band clacking its cymbals in appreciation of a short-lived pop phenomenon.

Bobby Darin managed to score hits in three distinct modes of music, he won an Oscar nomination for a fair stab at acting, and he married the reigning teen star of movies. He was only 37 when he died, in 1973, from a heart condition that (as he knew from childhood) was fated to shorten his life.

In presenting Darin’s story, Spacey tries a strategy that “De-Lovely” used. The opening sequences remind us that a show is being performed on Darin’s life; someone even comments that the actor playing the lead role is too old for the part.

Which is true – Spacey is too old (he’s older than Darin was when he died). The actor is light on his feet, but a little saggy of face when it comes to convincing us he’s found his youthful dream lover.

Little William Ullrich fares better, playing Walden Robert Cassotto (Darin understandably changed his name) as a kid. Encouraged by a musical mother (Brenda Blethyn), the boy schools himself in show biz style and the American songbook.

The rise-to-fame sequences follow the usual outline for such things, although Spacey moves so quickly you really don’t register anybody else but Darin. The leap of faith that took Darin from the early stardom of teen-pop tunes such as “Splish Splash” to the hepcat swing of the monster-selling “Mack the Knife” is amusingly told.

Spacey chooses the oddest details to emphasize. For some reason, Darin’s furtive courtship of Sandra Dee, on the set of “Come September,” gets an old-fashioned, drawn-out treatment. By the way, the casting of Kate Bosworth as the eternally virginal Dee is a promising choice (she starred in a surfing movie, “Blue Crush,” just like “Gidget” star Dee), but the character recedes into a series of snazzy costumes.

The marriage of Bobby and Sandra is sketchy and vague – the kind of thing that happens when a movie gets made with the approval of the people involved.

There is one whopper of a revelation that perks up the final act, which the movie links to Darin’s mid-’60s turn away from his polished success toward folk music and protest songs (he did that great hit version of “If I Were a Carpenter”). He grew a mustache and even left his toupee off.

So much time is spent on the actual performances of songs that you begin to suspect Spacey singing Darin is the reason the movie exists. And Spacey, a gifted mimic, is credible, if not note-perfect.

The film has other actors – Caroline Aaron and Bob Hoskins as Darin’s sister and brother-in-law, John Goodman as manager Steve Blauner. Everybody except Spacey is weirdly nondescript.

It makes a poor comparison to “Ray,” which covers overlapping ground (including record exec Ahmet Ertegun as a character). The music’s fine – it should make you hunt down a CD of Bobby Darin’s best – but this film doesn’t really sing.

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