- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Now that “Beyond the Sea,” Kevin Spacey’s labor-of-love biopic about singer Bobby Darin, is an entertaining fait accompli, it’s fun to recall the moment when I learned the actor planned to devote himself to the project, tripling up as star, director and co-writer. He mentioned it during a press junket several years ago, and the announcement triggered a ripple of double takes.

Not that there was anything seriously alarming about the idea, but in the public at large, the urge to impersonate Elvis Presley obviously had dwarfed the urge to impersonate Bobby Darin a generation after their deaths.

Kevin Spacey, riding high between Academy Awards for “The Usual Suspects” and “American Beauty,” appeared to be nurturing a singular passion. Now it has been realized with enough dedication, skill and gusto to justify the impulse and rejuvenate his career, which needs deliverance from a five-year turn for the dismal.

Bobby Darin was a brashly distinctive song stylist of 23 when Mr. Spacey was born, in 1959. Stricken with rheumatic fever and resultant heart damage at the age of 7, Mr. Darin survived boyhood frailty and enjoyed whirlwind success during the early 1960s. His great recording triumph was a rendition of “Mack the Knife” that won a pair of Grammys in 1960. It became the version that has pretty much effaced all others in popular memory.

Also keen on a movie career, Mr. Darin made a dramatic impression in the second John Cassavetes feature, “Too Late Blues,” which also introduced Stella Stevens and could use a Turner Classics revival this season. He displayed considerable flair as loose cannons in need of psychiatric care, provided by Sidney Poitier in “Pressure Point” and Gregory Peck in “Captain Newman, M.D.” Mr. Darin made the 1963 Academy Award finals in “Captain Newman” but finished an also-ran to Melvyn Douglas in “Hud.”

The movie uncorks a funny interlude of professional jealousy in the wake of the Oscar ceremony. It also coincides with a marital blowup that Mr. Spacey exploits for domestic slapstick. Mr. Darin shared a teetery marriage with ingenue Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth in a good wide-eyed impersonation), who became a major draw in 1958 while still in her teens.

She succumbed to Mr. Darin’s persistence when they played the subsidiary love match in “Come September,” a romantic comedy that co-starred Rock Hudson and Gina Lollobrigida. While ignoring the actual leads, the movie gets an amusing courtship chapter out of Mr. Darin’s aggressive infatuation and Miss Dee’s bewildered capitulation.

Perhaps the movie was envisioned initially for the stage. It begins with Mr. Spacey interrupting a performance of “Mack the Knife” during an apocryphal movie that casts Bobby Darin as himself. He has been distracted by a phantom: himself as a boy, winsomely embodied by William Ulrich. The man and boy interact throughout the remainder of the show, with young Bobby as the passkey to Mr. Darin’s past and the scenario’s flashbacks.

While concealing a heart-tugging skeleton in the closet, Mr. Spacey takes stirring advantage of rags-to-riches motivation: Bobby (born Walden Robert Cassotto) grows up in a poor but sheltering family environment in the Bronx, where his affectionate mother, Polly (Brenda Blethyn), encourages performing aspirations in her sickly child.

Mr. Spacey jumps into the flashbacks during a neighborhood production number to “Up a Lazy River.” Then he finesses a Darin songbook extending from “Splish Splash,” the singer’s initial novelty hit, to “As Long as You’re Singing,” the pretext for a grand finale and the number that summarizes the film’s sentimental, always-a-trouper outlook.

The title song, which enhances the courtship episodes, has long been associated with its French originator, Charles Trenet, but Mr. Darin’s version is also savory.

Mr. Spacey handles the entire song score in a close but faintly disconcerting imitation of Mr. Darin’s voice and delivery. This feat also smacks more of stage than screen, where custom favors the sound of the original voices, from Larry Parks as Al Jolson to Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles. It can be counterproductive to find yourself musing, “That’s close but not quite it.”

In a similar respect, Mr. Spacey never suggests a musical comedy “natural.” He wins you over as a determined and accomplished actor, sustaining an impressive display of resourcefulness and versatility.

***

TITLE: “Beyond the Sea”

RATING: PG-13 (Occasional profanity and sexual allusions)

CREDITS: Directed by Kevin Spacey. Screenplay by Mr. Spacey and Lewis Colick. Cinematography by Eduardo Serra. Production design by Andrew Law. Costume design by Ruth Myers.

RUNNING TIME: 118 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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