Bobby Darin was always hard to pin down as a performer. He broke through as a Fabian-style teen idol with "Splish Splash," then morphed into a swingin' Las Vegas crooner in the Frank Sinatra mold with "Mack the Knife." He was also a talented actor-singer-dancer who counted Sammy Davis Jr. as a peer, and later evolved into a protest folk singer along the lines of Phil Ochs.
Even though he was brushed off as a junior-league Sinatra, Darin did everything well enough to earn two Grammy Awards, an Oscar nomination and posthumous induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. So it's fitting that Kevin Spacey's ambitious Darin biopic "Beyond the Sea" has a tone that's just as multifaceted as its subject. But where Darin was versatile and did everything well, "Beyond the Sea" doesn't quite hang together.
"Beyond the Sea" opens in a key of pure corn, like one of those old-style musician biopics in which the hero overcomes all obstacles to change history, earn rags-to-riches immortality and get the girl (think 1955's "The Benny Goodman Story"). The opening sequence almost overdoses on self-referentiality: Spacey plays Darin playing himself in a movie about his career. Spacey gets to show off what a perfectionist freak Darin was as he copes with unsympathetic underlings and a pesky reporter who pointedly asks, "Isn't the truth that you're too old to play this part?" At 45, eight years older than Darin lived to be, Spacey might be.
Then Spacey/Darin gets into a heavy metaphysical discussion with his in-movie movie's younger cherub version of himself, and "Beyond the Sea" takes a hard left turn. It threatens to turn into a surreal Baz Luhrmann-style musical with lots of singing and dancing in the street. Time becomes as fluid as the choreography, and it's hard to tell who is doing (or dreaming) what when. Eventually, the film finds an uncomfortable middle ground between its fantasy and reality elements by playing up the most sentimental aspects of the story.
Darin's real-life history offers plenty of fodder for drama. Born Robert Walden Cassotto, he nearly died from a childhood bout of rheumatic fever, which damaged his heart so badly he wasn't expected to live past his teenage years. So after picking a performing name out of the phone book, he hit the ground running as if his life and career might end at any moment.
After rashly predicting he'd someday be "bigger than Sinatra," Darin sought out a beautiful movie star to marry (teen starlet Sandra Dee, played here by Kate Bosworth). Their stormy marriage crumbled about the same time Darin discovered that the woman he thought was his sister was actually his biological mother. That revelation and the 1968 murder of Robert F. Kennedy plunged him into a premature midlife crisis that lasted the rest of his life. He died of complications from heart surgery in 1973.
"Beyond the Sea" is largely based on the 1994 book by Darin and Dee's son, Dodd Darin, "Dream Lovers: The Magnificent Shattered Lives of Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee." The film addresses all the major points of Darin's chronology, although much of the story feels rushed and glossed-over.
Still, it's hardly a washout. Most of the best moments in "Beyond the Sea" come during the onstage performance sequences, in which Spacey's energy and enthusiasm serve the character well. Spacey eschews lip-syncing to do his own singing, and he's more than credible as a vocalist and ring-a-ding showman.
But the offstage part of the film falls short. You never get the feeling that Spacey inhabits the character or gets to the bottom of why Darin never seemed satisfied with his accomplishments -- even when his manager asks him that very question. As Spacey stares pensively into the distance, you're constantly aware of him "acting," playing Darin rather than being the character.
Ultimately, "Beyond the Sea" seems less about its subject, and more about serving as Oscar bait for its producer, director, co-writer and star.
Staff writer David Menconi can be reached at 829-4759 or firstname.lastname@example.org.