Beyond The Sea

Todd McCarthy, STAFF September 13, 2004

Bobby Darin – Kevin Spacey; Sandra Dee – Kate Bosworth; Steve Blauner – John Goodman; Charlie Maffia – Bob Hoskins; Polly – Brenda Blethyn; Mary – Greta Scacchi; Nina Cassotto  Maffia – Caroline Aaron; Dick Behrke – Peter Cincotti; Little Bobby – William Ullrich

“Beyond the Sea” boasts many of the same qualities as its subject, Bobby Darin — it’s raffish, flashy, energetic, entertaining and not very deep. A long-gestating project for Kevin Spacey, the actor’s second outing as a feature director stands as a superior companion piece to the recent “De-Lovely,” in that it relates a fragmented version of a 20th-century musical life from the ostensible point of view of the subject himself. Like the Cole Porter biopic, this one also will face a tough time finding an audience beyond ardent fans of the type of music featured therein, barring a miraculous resurgence in Darin’s popularity between now and the Thanksgiving release date. 

A predisposition to the material and the ’50s-’60s time frame, as well as to old-style musicals in general, may not be a requirement for enjoying “Beyond the Sea,” but it will undoubtedly help; those who feel superior or ungenerous to the form and its conventions will find plenty to pick on.

But whatever else might be said, Spacey is a pretty amazing Bobby Darin. However many years older he is than he should be for the part, he’s got all the moves down cold, he’s incredibly vibrant and his voice is astonishingly like Darin’s – to the point it’s difficult to believe it’s not Darin himself.

Spacey also has anticipated nearly every possible objection one could lodge against the film with built-in ripostes to his age (this is the older Darin replaying his life), hairpieces (Darin himself wore them, just like Sinatra, Bogie and John Wayne) and questionable versions of events (“It’s Bobby-world! Anything can happen!”).

At the outset, Darin begins a Cocoanut Grove performance to celebrate his 10th year in showbiz, only to interrupt the show to reveal that he’s on a film set, the audience consists of extras and a little-boy version of Bobby (William Ullrich) is peering out from behind the curtains. Insisting what he’s going to reveal is the truth, with a snap of his fingers Darin transports the action back to the Bronx of his youth, where Bobby Cassotto lived with his doting former-singer mother, Polly (Brenda Blethyn), sister Nina (Caroline Aaron) and brother-in-law Charlie (Bob Hoskins).

Rheumatic fever is supposed to kill him by the time he’s 15, but he slips through fate’s noose and begins singing with the confident ambition of becoming the next Sinatra and playing the Copacabana. Arrogant, persuasive and not to be denied, Bobby is supported by a retinue including Charlie, friend and manager Steve Blauner (John Goodman) and musical director Dick Behrke (Peter Cincotti). He has a few flops before becoming a teen sensation with “Splish Splash,” then switches gears to standards such as his trademark “Mack the Knife.”

A song that breaks out into a large city-streets dance number recalls Jacques Demy musicals with its nostalgic exhilaration, and it isn’t long before Bobby goes to Italy to appear with Rock Hudson and Sandra Dee in “Come September.” Bobby’s courtship of the pert, blond actress (Kate Bosworth) is clever and relentless; despite the objections of Dee’s mother, Mary (Greta Scacchi), Sandra accepts his marriage proposal. When Mary learns of their engagement, she explodes with fury and screams, “You might have concentrated more on Rock Hudson!”

For a while, it’s all good for this golden couple — movie stardom for Sandra, a mix of films, hit albums and touring for Bobby, culminating in an Oscar nomination for him for “Captain Newman, M.D.” and their baby boy.

The pressures of hectic showbiz lives have been dramatized extensively before, and “Beyond the Sea” can’t entirely escape the standard stuff about how little husband and wife see each other and so on. Bobby does have an unrestrained freak-out upon losing the Oscar, and when the slide comes, it comes fast; by the mid-’60s, Sandra’s washed up and Bobby sees that his music and career are “suddenly irrelevant.”

For a moment, “Beyond the Sea” literally crosses paths with “De-Lovely,” as Bobby, like Cole Porter, pauses the action and says he doesn’t want to see what comes next. With good reason. Structurally, final act is lumpy, as a decade’s worth of lowlights are awkwardly stitched together: Having so confidently created his persona, stunning information about his true family history throws Darin into a huge identity crisis. To the pointed accompaniment of a great Rolling Stones song, Bobby tosses out the toupees, becomes a hippie, supports Bobby Kennedy and disappears to the beach for a while.

Attempting a comeback in his mid-30s, he’s jeered when he plays an acoustic antiwar song at the Copa, has a heart operation, returns home and begins to prepare for his departure from the earthly scene. But not before recognizing what he was put here for and reaching a reckoning with his little-boy self, who shadows Bobby throughout his life.

Just as Bobby knew he was born to perform, Spacey’s perf is reason enough for the film to exist and is the source of much of its pleasure. The song deliveries in public performance are particularly exciting, their arrangements, staging and cutting all adding to the effect.

Supporting thesps thread through the action with vigor. Bosworth is a plausible Dee, although the character is rather shortchanged in that it’s impossible to tell if there’s anything interesting inside or if she actually believed she was a more serious actress than was popularly thought. Hoskins, Blethyn and Aaron provide big-sized emotions and color, and Ullrich has the chutzpah and timing to make him credible as the pre-teen version of the man he’s meant to become.

Shot mostly at the Babelsberg Studios outside Berlin, lenser Eduardo Serra, production designer Andrew Laws, costume designer Ruth Myers and many other hands conjure up a respectable feel for time and place without benefiting from real California locations and quality of light.

Print shown in Toronto featured no end credits crawl, and writing credit was announced as being under arbitration, with no names listed onscreen.