A bizarrely misshapen shrine erected in memory of semi-forgotten crooner Bobby Darin, Beyond the Sea may be the worst biopic of the season. But it’s also the most fascinating—for reasons that have less to do with Darin, the rags-to-riches lounge lizard who had lifelong heart problems due to childhood rheumatic fever, than with the film’s writer-director-producer-star, Kevin Spacey. Drowning in accidental subtext, it’s both queasy psychodrama and earnest ego trip, a stunt so bravely defiant of commonsense realism that it borders on the avant-garde.
To watch Beyond the Sea is to marvel at the particular recipe of obsession and delusion that willed it into being. In one distressing dissolve, smack in the middle of a dime-store-Demy song-and-dance number, cherubic pre-adolescent Bobby (William Ullrich) morphs into a smirking, jowly middle-aged guy. Spacey, nearly a decade older than Darin was when he died in 1973 at age 37, plays the singer-actor from his late teens on. One excuse: Beyond the Sea is haphazardly framed as a fictitious autobiopic. In other words, Spacey projects his narcissism onto his subject, imagining a Darin conceited enough to direct himself as his younger self. “He’s too old!” someone protests, only for Darin’s brother-in-law (Bob Hoskins) to snap, “He was born to play this part and you damn well know it!”
This hysterical defensiveness infects every scene. The flimsy meta tricks seem undermotivated at first, but an alarming conceptual coherence emerges: The to-camera winks, the unseemly fixation on the protagonist’s receding hairline, the self-protective air of stiff irreality—all exist solely to rationalize the director’s central casting decision. By the end of this wholly disorienting experience (this must be what it’s like to be held captive in a Long Island supper club and force-fed hallucinogens), there’s only one thing we damn well know, and it’s that Kevin Spacey sure as hell believes he was born to play Bobby Darin.
But despite his serviceable voice, Spacey, even more than Björk in Dancer in the Dark, is an all-singing, all-dancing alienation effect. The disconnect intensifies in the scenes that involve young women. At 22, Darin cemented his stardom with an American Bandstand performance of “Splish Splash”; confronted with Spacey’s version of the event, a mob of frenzied girls shrieking at this leering “teen idol,” viewers may well join in the chorus of screams. Things get truly grisly when Darin begins to woo lousy-with-virginity 16-year-old Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth). Their courtship, on the Italian set of Come September (co-starring Rock Hudson), is painful to watch, but the wedding-night prelude to a defloration—Darin pledging chaste devotion to his tearful bride with the visual aid of a manly sword—is compulsively creepy, a set piece of sexual mortification that could have strayed in from a Catherine Breillat film. (Age difference between Darin and Dee: eight years. Between Spacey and Bosworth: 24.)
Brenda Blethyn, Caroline Aaron, and Greta Scacchi all play screeching maternal gargoyles, giving the film a burped aftertaste of Freudian nightmare. Scacchi, as Dee’s disapproving mom, scolds her daughter: “You might have concentrated more on Rock Hudson!” It’s a curious in-joke that boomerangs on Spacey, who has long sought to quash speculations about his sexuality; a queer film scholar with time to kill may one day make the case for this display of camp exhibitionism as an unconscious coming-out movie.
Spacey depicts the Dee-Darin marriage as a competitive bitchfest, reaching its climactic tantrum on Oscar night 1964, when Darin, nominated for Captain Newman, M.D., loses to Melvyn Douglas. Darin’s hippie-folkie rebirth is put across in comical shorthand (Spacey grows a mustache and lights some candles). In one of several fourth-wall-cracking interludes, adult Bobby tells his moppet counterpart, “Memories are like moonbeams; we do with them what we want”—a perplexing claim that assumes access to Darin’s memories and the use of advanced renewable-energy technology. Spacey, of course, takes this bit of hepcat gibberish as gospel. True to its genre, Beyond the Sea is reductive and evasive, but never has a biopic dreamed up so much nonsense—and struggled so hard to justify its bogusness.