Kevin Spacey as Bobby Darin
Kate Bosworth as Sandra Dee
John Goodman as Steve Blauner
Bob Hoskins as Charlie Cassoto Maffia
Brenda Blethyn as Polly Cassoto
Greta Scacchi as Mary Duvan
Caroline Aaron as Nina Cassotto Maffia
Peter Cincotti as Dick Behrke
Michael Byrne as Dr. Andretti
William Ulrich as Little Bobby
You have to give Kevin Spacey props for bringing this labor of love to light, but Beyond the Sea is so self-indulgent and all over the place, both emotionally and tonally, that it never truly finds its feet.
The life of pop singer Bobby Darin, who sang the immortal words “Splish Splash, I was taking a bath,” is brought to the big screen by Kevin Spacey, who co-wrote and directed the film, as well as doing all of his own singing and dancing. After years as a successful recording artist and actor, Darin’s life was cut short at the young age of 37 by a heart problem that plagued him since youth.
Although Bobby Darin’s name was never quite up there with Elvis or the Beatles, you can’t discount his contribution to American pop culture, having had #1 hits, Grammies, and even being nominated for an Oscar once he took up acting. Kevin Spacey’s mother played him Darin’s music when he was younger, beginning a lifelong love and interest in the singer and his music. It’s not that surprising that once Spacey finally got some pull in Hollywood, he would try to make a movie about him. Beyond the Sea is clearly Spacey’s movie in every respect. Not only does he appear in every scene-singing and dancing as well as acting–but he produced, co-wrote the script, and even directed it.
It’s a true showcase for Spacey’s talents, who takes a different approach to the normal biopic by breaking up the story with MGM style musical numbers. They’re fun to watch, but as would be good to remember from Julian Temple’s Absolute Beginners, it’s hard to believe a story where people randomly break out into musical numbers. On the other hand, Kevin Spacey’s performances of Darin’s songs backed by a big band are impressive since Spacey does all of his own singing. It gives the performances a bit of an edge over Ray, where Foxx mimed to Ray Charles’ original tracks, but it also makes it harder to separate Spacey from Darin, and you never forget that you’re watching Spacey on screen. (Ironically, Charles appears tangentially in the movie, having shared a record label with Darin.)
The film never glosses over the bad parts of Darin’s life like the heart problems that eventually took his life, his fight with male pattern baldness, and his failing career, but when he’s not singing, there’s little to like about him. His sickly bedridden youth in the Bronx makes him tougher later in life, which allows Spacey to revisit territory that he explored with characters in Swimming with Sharks and Glengarry Glen Ross, being a hard person to get along with, let alone work for. An even bigger criticism is that it’s hard to accept the middle-aged Spacey as he tries to play a much younger Darin. After all, Darin died at a younger age than Spacey’s current one. Early in the movie, Spacey pikes fun of this but showing a scene where Darin is try to play himself in an autobiographical movie of his life and a reporter tells him the same thing.
The age problem is the most noticeable when Spacey plays opposite Kate Bosworth, who does a wonderful job capturing the innocence of Darin’s wife, teen actress Sandra Dee. Despite the age difference-Spacey is twice Bosworth’s age– their scenes together are the film’s high point from Darin’s musical seduction of the young starlet to the knock-down drag-out fights later in the movie. Ultimately, Darin would drive her to alcoholism as his career success began to outweigh her own.
Much of the rest of the cast is wasted with poor performances from Goodman, Hoskins and Brenda Blethyn, a fine dramatic actress who appears for ten minutes as young Bobby’s mother, even singing and dancing in the first big musical number. The oddest point of the movie is when Bobby’s significantly older sister Nina, played by Caroline Aaron, shares a major revelation. It’s a weirdly dramatic moment from a character, who up until that point, is used as the film’s comic relief as Bobby’s “difficult family member.” After that, things just get dreary as Nina’s big secret drives Bobby into hiding and he gets all political and it just never quite recovers once it gets bogged down in the drama.
The movie’s biggest storytelling fault is inserting the younger Bobby Darin, as played by Broadway brat William Ulrich, into the narrative. It’s the type of storytelling narrative that gets annoying real fast, because it kills the momentum as Spacey gets into conversations with his younger self. For the most part, all of the film’s dramatic scenes just seem homogenized and forced, like a bad television movie, mainly due to the poor writing. Darin’s first person narrative that runs through the entire movie doesn’t do much to help.
Spacey’s drive to keep the name of Bobby Darin alive is a noble one, but Beyond the Sea is just a big mess from beginning to end that would surely have been tightened up by a stronger writer and director. Sure, there is a lot of charm to the movie’s musical numbers, but Spacey’s energies might have been better used in making a Bobby Darin tribute record.