Friday, June 03, 2005

Beyond the Sea

It's not that Beyond the Sea is a horrible movie. It's not. It's fast, entertaining, features some nice supporting performances and a whole lot of reasonably enjoyable, old-fashioned lounge music. Plus it's funny, albeit unintentionally.

So, yeah, it's not that Beyond the Sea is a horrible movie. It's just that, based on his scripting, direction and lead performance as Bobby Darin, Kevin Spacey may be certifiably insane.

Bobby Darin has apparently been a massive influence to Spacey, who has dreamt of realizing a biopic about the actor and singer for many years. Now that he's finally gotten his project off the ground, it's similar to other massive star vanity vehicles, like John Travolta's Battlefield: Earth, in that it's immensely personal and even self-involved. So personal and self-involved, it winds up revealing a lot more about its creator than its subject.

But it's far more daring and ambitious than I expected from a biographical film, which tend to follow certain rigid guidelines (like last year's generic and overpraised Ray). I enjoyed this one a lot more than Ray, I'll say that.

Spacey has made a thoughtful, peculiar and music-filled movie that never tries to be anything but idiosyncratic and odd, and you kind of have to respect that on some level, even if his movie makes little sense from a narrative or thematic standpoint.

Beyond the Sea opens with Kevin Spacey as director (in his Bobby Darin make-up) deciding how to make a film about Bobby Darin. I think Spacey might have meant for this to actually be Bobby Darin, after death, making an imaginary, allegorical film about his life, but that's not what it looked like to me. So, the boy playing the young Bobby Darin (William Ullrich) suggests to Spacey-Darin that they start at the beginning, his childhood, and we're off.

The main idea that Darin's life seems to represent for Spacey is immortality through performance. At first, the young Darin is sickly and near death after contracting pneumatic fever, and he survives only because of his dreams of stardom and love of music, passed on from his affectionate vaudevillian mother (Brenda Blethyn). Later on in the film, Darin ignores and rejects his family for the sake of his career. And finally, at the end, the young Darin has to show up again to remind Spacey-Darin that he'll live forever through music, so he shouldn't worry about dying young during heart surgery in 1973.

See what I mean? That's peculiar, very peculiar. Especially considering that the movie was wholly conceived by...entertainer Kevin Spacey. What is he trying to say to us? That he's thankful we go see his movies, so he can now live forever? That he's like Darin, in that both of them aspire to nothing but the approval of the masses? That fame and popularity are inherently good, and confer goodness on those who win them? I can't really figure it out.

Here's but one example. In one scene, we see Darin giving his son Dodd a suitcase, and instructing him not to open it "until I'm gone." Okay, fair enough. Later, we see the boy open the suitcase and remove...a Grammy. Inside the suitcase are a number of odds and ends associated with Darin's career, and also a film reel labeled...Beyond the Sea.

Okay, wow, that's strange. What I'm gathering from this is two things: (1) Spacey thinks the ultimate way for a dad to show his love to his son is to give him a meaningless award statuette given out annually to popular musical acts who sell a bunch of albums and (2) Spacey includes his own film about the life of Bobby Darin in a collection of treasured items Darin himself would have left for his own son.


In another sequence, Darin loses the Best Supporting Actor Oscar to Melvyn Douglas (for his work in Hud), and proceeds to get into an angry fight with his wife, Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth), taunting her about the low quality of her Gidget movies before threatening to leave her and smashing the windows of his car. And this guy's the hero of the movie, whose ambition and tirelessness we are supposed to admire.

It's also strange how limited Spacey's view of the full scope of a man's life can be. Darin isn't really shown to have much of a personality, outside of his aggressive, narcissistic need for attention and approval and his desire for ever-greater heights of fame and fortune. And no one around him, from Bosworth's Sandra Dee to his son to his manager (played anonymously by John Goodman) to the assorted cronies and well-wishers who make up his inner circle are allowed any personality whatsoever. Spacey has surrounded Darin with so much positive support, in fact, that the movie occasionally threatens to cease having any narrative whatsoever.

Among this posse is Darin's sister Nina and his brother-in-law (Bob Hoskins), who give the film's only two real performances (and, yes, I include Spacey...more on that in a bit...) Hoskins in particular does amazing work with an absolute zero of a character. His Charlie is so supportive, so loving, so kind, that a lesser actor would have churned out a simple, bland, forgettable performance. But Hoskins is the best thing in the movie. He fills in the blanks, makes Charlie seem like the only real person in this pumped-up, meta- affair.

And that's the problem with Spacey's performance and film - it's way too obviously a sham from the first. I don't know if he felt self-conscious about making a movie about someone famous, or weird to take on such a big project having only directed one other film, but Spacey has turned this movie inside on itself so many times, you can't tell when he's playing it straight and when he's taking a massive, post-modern leap.

It's a pastiche, not a movie, substituting film style and montage for development of a story or characters. When Sandra Dee becomes an alcoholic, we don't see a single scene play out of her drinking. Bosworth at some points gives a kind of half-assed slur to some of her words, but it's a case of too little too late. All we know of her troubles with alcohol is gleaned from a montage of (of course) Spacey performing Darin songs while Dee slugs martinis. See, kids, she's drinking too much!

This is particularly true through the film's chaotic opening half hour. We're shown the moment when Darin meets Sandra Dee twice. The first time, they run a scene together, Darin asks her on a date, she rebuffs him and they get into an argument. Then, Spacey-as-Darin is urged by his young counterpart to try the introduction over, and we get a musical number and boat ride.

Okay, so the first version was probably the more realistic one, and the second is a flight of fancy, but by that point, we've seen the scene twice and have no idea how Darin and Dee really met, or even how Dee feels about him. When they get married two scenes later, I still kind of thought she hated him...or was the boat trip/musical version true?

This is the central relationship driving the entire film (except possibly for Spacey-Darin and young Darin), and we don't even get to see it form, to get an idea for who these two people are and how they came to fall in love. Why did Spacey think the silly "do the scene twice" device was more important than developing the romance at the heart of the film?

You can't take any of the dramatics in the film seriously, because it's all so obviously faked and reconstructed for the purposes of a movie. This is really a major flaw in Spacey's performance as well. He's not really doing an impression of Darin, and though he can sing pretty well, he doesn't actually sound very much like Darin. His make-up is absolutely atrocious and distracting, so he doesn't look like Darin. And the movie keeps clearly pointing out its obvious fictionalization of Darin's life story.

You end up seeing Kevin Spacey acting out the life of Bobby Darin, and doing a pretty goofy job of it. He's not really much of a dancer, and a lot of the time looks like he's trying too hard, when the whole point of Darin's schtick was his comfort on stage and his casual demeanor. Oops.

In one really horrific exchange early on, a reporter accuses Spacey-Darin of being "too old to play this part," an obvious allusion to genuine criticisms that Spacey was too old to portray Darin in a bio pic.

"He was born to play this part," roars protective Bob Hoskins. But it's a line Spacey should have given himself. He clearly does feel that he was born to play this part, that the suffering, dying Darin who wanted only to entertain reflects some of his own essence or whatever. The movie he's made is not simply a catalog of Darin's egotism but a celebration of it, and I suppose in a way what Spacey's celebrating is himself. His own drive to entertain, his own need for accolades and appreciation. Maybe that's why he stopped making interesting movies after American Beauty made him an Oscar winner in 1999, and he started making trite Oscar-bait like The Shipping News and K-Pax and the immensely stupid The Life of David Gale.

It's too bad, because when he's less self-conscious, he's better.

I wouldn't actually mind seeing another film directed by Kevin Spacey. Unlike the mediocre Albino Alligator that marked his debut as a filmmaker, Beyond the Sea is a well-shot, nice-looking movie that's paced well and really flows. It's entertaining and brisk, as I said before, a two hour biopic that never bored me or grew tedious.

And even the musical numbers, of which there are about 2 or 3 too many, are well-staged and photographed so that you can actually see the people dancing. That's more than I can say for a lot of contemporary movie musicals by more seasoned directors than Spacey, like Joel Schumacher's inane Phantom of the Opera, where the gaudy sets and costumes overshadowed all the actual human movement.

It's just so shallow, so silly and so self-important. Will someone please slap Kevin Spacey upside his head and tell him to go back to playing scumbags, serial killers and Hungarian criminal masterminds please?


Anonymous said...

Thanks for your many thoughtful observations about the problems with this very interesting movie. I would like to say something about the soundtrack for Beyond the Sea. Spacey did get one of Darin's able music conductors and arrangers (he worked with many people over his short career), Roger Kellaway, to work with him on the music, and fans of Darin's work will catch the authenticity in the music; Darin's family made available Darin's own music scores for the pieces used. Spacey also made excellent choices from Darin's music to illustrate his life story, I feel. I have the soundtrack for the movie which I have listened to many times with pleasure.


Anonymous said...

Bobby Darin has has been lost in the shuffle over the years. Bobby was a great singer, dancer, played several istruments, did impressions,was, wrote hundreds of songs, a good actor and had a great sense of humor. His personal life, because of his illness, was in constant stress.

Kevin, being a big fan of Bobbys, wanted to bring him to the attention of of the current generation. His film has made thousands of people aware of Bobby's great talent. His CD's, DVD's and films are selling like hot cakes. Many of us cannot get enough of them. His star is being added to the Walk of fame in Las Vegas. A Darinfest is being planned to celebrate his birthday in May and will be attended by people from all over the world. This was Kevin's goal and he done just that.
In an intervierw with Larry King ( which you should watch) Kevin, Dodd and Steve explain the purpose of the film. Dodd said his mother loved it. Sandy told kievin she wouldn't change a thing. If you read one of the many books on Bobby's life, you would understand why Kevin included many things in his movie.