Director/co-writer/star Kevin Spacey's filmed biography of singer Bobby Darin proves how often the phrases "labor of love" and "spectacularly wrong" can intersect. You can't doubt Spacey's enthusiasm for paying tribute to a talent that he obviously feels is worthy of lionization alongside Sinatra and Presley. But every time the movie finds a way to properly advance that argument, the story veers off in a contradictory direction, showing the symptoms of creative ADD. It's a case of a filmmaker accomplishing too little by trying to accomplish too much.
Is the movie a drama? Only on paper: The triumphs and tragedies of Darin's life are undercut by a playful, carny-barking tone that out-overdoes even its main character's show-biz sensibilities. Is it a musical? Not consistently enough to make the cast's occasional eruptions into sloppily choreographed street dances feel anything more than awkward. Worse, the storytelling model Spacey has chosen to follow is the thorny movie-within-a-movie. We meet up with Darin post-success, as he attempts to commit his life story to celluloid; the recollections flow subjectively from there. Think this era-twisting technique obscures the fact that Spacey is too old to play Darin, who died at age 37? Not in the slightest.
Most of the movie's interest level is sustained by historical facts that were there for the taking by anybody. As a director, Spacey doesn't always know what to do with them. Darin, we learn, was diagnosed with rheumatic fever at an early age, and his sense of living on borrowed time is what fueled his workaholic career strategies. It's a great framework for an incisive, forward-moving biopic, yet the movie lets this motivation go unaddressed for entire stretches, diluting the potential for urgency as Darin racks up achievement after achievement topping the charts, landing movie roles, playing the Copa, marrying starlet Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth, as a proto-Jessica Simpson).
When Darin is on top, the movie is amusing in a vaguely trivial manner. When his star starts to fade in the more "serious" climate of the late '60s, Spacey is clearly in over his head. One scene would have us believe that Darin embarked on his controversial stint as a protest singer by laying sheet music and The New York Times side by side on his worktable.
Beyond the Sea is always at least watchable; Spacey is too appealing a performer for anything less. As a singer, however, he can't quite replicate the supple tones needed to offset his portrayal of Darin as a damnably curt professional a slave-driving bandleader who paid more attention to his needs of the moment than his colleagues' feelings. The musicians' hall of fame is filled with artists who were bastards until they unleashed their miraculous voices, and then all was forgiven. Spacey's Darin is a bastard who can sing pretty good, and that's just not enough.