As if Kevin Spacey weren’t enough of a pandering purveyor of cheap sentiment, along comes Beyond the Sea, a show-offy biopic of the late, great singer-songwriter Bobby Darin, which further reveals the actor/director as a shameless, slogan-reliant historical reductionist. Boasting what may be the most offensive yet hilarious end-title justification of the film’s dubious genre (“Memories are like Moonbeams”), Beyond the Sea likewise hangs Darin’s complex troubles and accomplishments with this ragged intertextual noose: “People hear what they see,” say several characters. That statement encapsulates every wrong approach to cinema. It’s the rallying cry of literalists who don’t understand the multiple meanings inherent to the interplay of sound and image. Consequently, I doubt Spacey caught the provocative implications of his own title; indeed, how can one expect this shallow and creepy entertainer to look beyond sight when he’s incapable of looking beyond himself?
Spacey’s vainglory is evident by his very decision (ineffectually joked about in the film-within-a-film framing device) to cast himself as Darin. The singer died at age 37, plagued by a life-long heart condition. Spacey, who’s pushing 50, plays Darin from his late-teens on, though he occasionally converses, sings, and dances with an annoying younger version of himself (William Ullrich) who offers pithy Dennis Potter-like commentary on the action, the child being father to the man and all. (In)appropriately, Beyond the Sea‘s numerous musical interludes seem like bastard leftovers and outtakes from Potter’s mindfuck fantasias The Singing Detective and Pennies From Heaven, straining for those films’ penetrating psychological insight but always coming up short. It doesn’t help that Spacey essentially does a series of soft-shoes and calls it dancing; even worse is the sight of crowds of young women screaming with lustful abandon at the actor’s frighteningly pulled-back and made-up visage: he looks like a lecherous stone gargoyle who’s had a few too many cement facelifts.
Spacey’s trivial theatrics—confusing physical and vocal mimicry for true performance—insult Darin’s legacy. The singer, told by doctors that he wouldn’t live past his middle-teens, continually fought against an omnipresent ticking clock; in his work there’s a sense of life lived deliriously moment by moment. When Darin screeches “Eeek!” in his most popular cover, “Mack the Knife,” it’s as if he’s playfully challenging death itself to an all-out apocalyptic brawl. And how does Spacey illustrate Darin’s constant forge? Through an actual ticking clock, morphing into a microphone, that young Bobby tosses to old Bobby in the all-singing, all-dancing crocodile tears climax. “People hear what they see,” so the saying goes. But that doesn’t mean we have to buy a bloody second of it.