Beyond the Sea's raison d'etre is Kevin Spacey's imitation of '50s-'60s rock-pop sensation Bobby Darin (Spacey also directed), but the best reason to see it is Kate Bosworth as Sandra Dee.
Bosworth embodies wholesome all-American blondehood and knows how to play it with savvy. So when Spacey's creepy, calculating and over-age teen idol comes on to her, the audience feels like applauding her goggle-eyed disbelief. Of course, Dee was 16 and Darin 24 when they met - but Spacey is 45 and Bosworth will be 22 on Jan. 2. (Darin was 37 when he died in 1973.) If Spacey was going to make the Dee-Darin coupling appear, well, natural, he might have made his lover a little more of a coeval. (Drew Barrymore, all of 29, might have made a better match.)
Their courtship takes place on the Italian location of the Rock Hudson romantic comedy Come September (which, in 1961, was actually Darin's second film after a cameo in Pepe). During a fantasy production number, Darin serenades Dee in various oddball guises, but mostly pulls out all the stops with a yellow suit; it's a lucky visual pun on "singer" that the color is canary yellow. For a second, Bosworth's Dee seems charmed when he whirls her around - or maybe just stunned. Then, in an emblematic moment, Spacey's Darin throws her straight out of the dance so he can occupy center-screen without his co-star. Unfortunately, she marries him anyway.
The whole movie is like that. Everything revolves around Darin (which means, of course, that everything revolves around Spacey); no one can resist his magnetism. To paraphrase for a family newspaper, the motto of his entourage, stated early, is, "he may be a jerk, but he's our jerk."
Spacey has blurbed David Evanier's new biography, Roman Candle: The Life of Bobby Darin ("a pleasure to read"), but he hasn't incorporated many of its details, not even the ones that would help explain why Darin united a tight circle of family and friends. Of course, his personal story is compelling. Raised on New York's Lower East Side, he had an overpowering stage mother (Brenda Blethyn) who was determined that he become a Sinatra-scale star with a speed that would beat the clock on his weak heart.
But Spacey ditches the built-in drama - even a dynamite family revelation is so poorly placed that it fizzles. This picture resembles a misguided homage to that other recent fiasco of a musical biopic, the Cole Porter story De-Lovely. Spacey, who also produced and shares writing credit for Beyond the Sea with October Sky's Lewis Colick, frames Darin's story as a musical the singer is staging about his own life. (Among other things, the gimmicky structure allows Spacey to excuse his advancing years.) This time, the co-author isn't the Archangel Gabriel but Darin's enduring inner child. Both of these movies are bad enough to make you feel that achieving internal peace before you die is overrated.
Darin had the kind of fervor that expresses itself in ambition and conflict. He boasted the finger-snapping swing and rhythm of prime Sinatra; at his core he was the musical-performing equivalent of Tony Curtis in The Sweet Smell of Success. Spacey touches on a few of his crass, live-wire edges - Darin's strategic determination to marry Dee, America's sweetheart, is a good example - but the actor lacks the sexual electricity to make them hum.
Jamie Foxx may have lip-synched to Ray Charles in Ray, but his super-sensitive physicality and imaginative sympathy made you feel the music surge through each of his sensors and brain cells. Spacey actually does sing and pull off superficial re-creations of the Darin style. But vocally he lacks Darin's spontaneous oomph, and his body movements carom off the beats without drive or force. (Robert Downey Jr. did a livelier Darin imitation in the otherwise atrocious movie version of The Singing Detective.) And in several elaborate choreographed numbers, Spacey's lack of training or God-given talent defeats his dancing chutzpah.
Is imitation really the sincerest form of flattery? Here it feels like the most craven form. This movie is about an actor's misguided and shallow demonstration of virtuoso mimicry rather than an actual performer who conquered almost as many genres and personal traumas as Ray Charles. In Beyond the Sea, Darin remains Spacey's jerk, not ours.
Beyond the Sea
Starring Kevin Spacey and Kate Bosworth
Directed by Kevin Spacey
Released by Lion's Gate
Time 121 minutes
Sun Score *