Owing to what seems his intense identification with the fallen teen idol, Kevin Spacey, who wrote and directed the picture, has attempted to make up for this omission. However, this odd love letter to his boyhood idol never really shows why Darin should be rescued from obscurity. Jamming together old-fashioned musical production numbers with narrative gimmicks that already seem like relics from another age, "Beyond the Sea" is a mishmash that's interesting only as a document of Spacey's obsessions.
Even when Darin was a headliner in Vegas and at the Copacabana, many people felt his success had less to do with talent than with a triumph of the will. In "Beyond the Sea," that will is kindled by Darin's mother (the splendid Brenda Blethyn). When her little boy (William Ullrich) is laid low with the rheumatic fever that scarred his heart, she lures him back to life with "the Plan," a scheme to make him "bigger than Sinatra." In two shakes, their squalid street in the Bronx is alive with streetwise hoofers in Busby Berkeley mode, joyously proclaiming glories to come. From there, we jump almost immediately to Darin's first blush of fame, and what follows is a series of doubtful achievements that Spacey doesn't have the stomach to question sufficiently.
For starters, there's Darin's wooing of fellow teen idol Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth, in an unremarkable performance), who was just 16 when they wed, a fact that goes unmentioned in the movie. Then follows the disheartening spectacle of Darin's attempt to keep himself in the public eye with a brief stint in Hollywood, and his ill-starred transformation into a '60s-style balladeer, strumming his guitar and singing of freedom to uncomprehending yokels who only want to hear "Dream Lover" and "Splish Splash." Intermittently, little Bobby pops up to guide the wayward singer back to tasks more in keeping with his true gifts, such as writing lyrics like "There's a bell up in my brain that's ringing / Making a crazy ding-dong." We're not really knocked out of our seats when Darin boasts that he composed one of his biggest hits in 20 minutes.
Spacey has taken on this role with moxie worthy of Darin himself. He does all his own singing, and pulls it off credibly. But Spacey is 45, and his dye job, sagging jowls and droopy eyelids attributes that served him so well in "American Beauty" make his courtship with Sandra Dee seem more like a case for the vice squad than a romance.
Spacey might claim that he's going for a deeper kind of honesty that makes his appearance irrelevant, but for a movie that asks to be taken as seriously as a Gatsby-like tale of American self-invention, there's a curious reluctance to stick to the facts. The real Darin dumped his wife after six years of marriage. "He just woke up one morning and didn't want to be married anymore," a bewildered Sandra Dee told the divorce court. In the last year of his life, he married another woman, only to be separated a few months later. But Spacey, determined to portray Darin as a man gradually but surely struggling toward the light, suppresses these tawdry details.
As the leaders of Darin's entourage, Bob Hoskins and John Goodman bark out their lines with verve, and Caroline Aaron turns in the film's best performance as the sister who feels her famous brother has discarded her along with his real name, Walden Robert Cassotto. But in the end, we can't get past the worrisome parallels between Darin and Spacey himself. "I just gotta find myself," Darin moans at one point. The words could apply to the formidably talented Spacey, whose career since "American Beauty" has been somewhat in limbo. "Beyond the Sea" isn't the way out. ** S
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