Just a few years ago, it seemed as though Kevin Spacey could do no wrong. After watching Beyond the Sea, it’s hard to image him ever doing anything right again. In the mid-1990s, Spacey was an electric screen presence with a knack for choosing edgy material, including The Usual Suspects, Glengarry Glen Ross and L.A. Confidential. Since winning the Oscar for his role in American Beauty, however, it seems Spacey has done nothing but embrace his worst impulses. His filmography since 1999 is littered with pompous tripe like The Life of David Gale and Pay It Forward, and embarrassing sentimental gloop like K-PAX.
There was every reason in the world to believe Beyond the Sea would turn out to be a stinker for the ages, and on that score, it doesn’t disappoint. For years, Spacey has told interviewers that the biopic of finger-popping crooner Bobby Darin was his dream project, despite the fact that he was too old for the role even when he first started talking about it and he certainly hasn’t gotten any younger. (Darin died at 37, an age Spacey passed eight years ago.) His dream has come true; not only does Spacey take on the role of Darin and handle the vocals himself, he also directed the picture.His previous effort behind the camera, Albino Alligator, was not especially promising – unless it was promising a future train wreck, in which case, it has delivered.
The world has not been breathlessly awaiting the story of the man who recorded “Splish Splash” to reach the silver screen.This is a vanity project, pure and simple; it exists only because Kevin Spacey thought it would be cool to sing “Mack the Knife” in a big Hollywood production number.There’s no great story to be told here; the only thing distinguishing Darin’s life from that of a thousand other mid-level show business figures is its race-against-the-clock quality. (Darin suffered from rheumatic fever as a child, which left him with a weakened heart.Doctors told him he would be dead before his eighteenth birthday; he defied their predictions but could not escape his fate to die at a young age.)
Spacey lavishes Darin’s standard rags-to-riches arc with cutesy artifice, a sort of ersatz Technicolor “let’s put on a show!” style.It’s knowingly corny and wink-wink – “show biz” at its most nauseating and as phony as Spacey’s performance.For the first three quarters of the picture, he’s not concerned with making Darin a three-dimensional character as long as he’s always the coolest guy in the room.As a singer he does a passable Darin impression (though his voice never soars as his subject’s did on the classic tune that lends the picture its name), but as a dancer he looks like a constipated frog.He brings out the hammiest instincts in his supporting cast – John Goodman as his manager, Brenda Blethyn as his sister and Bob Hoskins as his brother-in-law all turn in career-worst performances.Worst of all, he imposes an ill-advised Christmas Carol device on the narrative with the recurring presence of Bobby-Darin-as-child, leading the adult Bobby towards the light (or something).
Bobby takes Vegas by storm, he romances Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth) on a movie set, he yells at everyone who cares about him, and then he has an epiphany that pushes Beyond the Sea even further off the deep end.Bobby grows a mustache, loses his toupee, moves into a trailer and starts wearing jeans and strumming folkie tunes on the guitar.All this is true.What’s absurd is the way Spacey treats Darin’s subsequent comeback as a cultural watershed moment.His lame war protest number is presented as the truth his audience isn’t ready for – until he puts the rug and tux back on and takes the Vegas stage with a swelling gospel choir behind him.The way Spacey stages it, you would think this performance brought us peace in Vietnam, prompted Nixon’s resignation and put a man on the moon for good measure.
Movie stars have recovered from worse debacles – John Travolta still manages to find work, even after Battlefield: Earth – but it’s going to be very difficult for Spacey to reclaim his credibility after this fiasco. Maybe he doesn’t care; in recent interviews, he’s said he may give up the acting game altogether and hit the road as a singer-songwriter.Who knows?That may be the humbling experience he so sorely needs right now.