Only the naive will buy Spacey's speech about how this is just a childhood infatuation wrought on the big screen; he says in the soundtrack's liner notes, "I fell in love with Bobby Darin's music when I was just a boy," but a kid's musical crushes inevitably fade as he grows older. The critic needn't be a psychologist to see why Spacey really loves this guy: Darin, running from an inevitable early death from rheumatic fever (of which a doctor warned him when he was just a little boy), jammed everything he could into his life. Not only did he sing in a handful of different genres and become, for an instant, bigger than Sinatra, but he also acted (he was Oscar-nominated for Captain Newman, M.D. ), married the movie star everyone wanted but none could claim (Sandra Dee), and even wrote, directed, produced and scored a movie of his own, titled The Vendors, which was so dreadful (according to Darin's own son, Dodd) it was never released. Spacey, the would-be song-and-dance man, regards Darin as a renaissance man, the guy who had it all and did it all, and he wants to be spoken of in the same breath. He's myth-maker and now myth-taker, borrowing someone else's story to reinvent his own.
And Lord knows Spacey needs reinvention -- that, or a new agent. His recent work is littered with admirable missteps (The Shipping News) and appalling mistakes (Pay It Forward, K-Pax, and The Life of David Gale), and our patience for him wears as thin as one of Darin's toupees. He may have once loved Darin, but now he really needs him. Playing Bobby, whose vaudeville-bred mother (portrayed in the movie by Brenda Blethyn, barking like she's from da Bronx) taught her sickly boy how to sing and dance with a smile through his short life, allows him to charm an audience that had grown tired of him. He's such an inimitable mimic and bears such an uncanny resemblance to Darin, it's even possible to be wowed and wooed by Spacey slithering around to a lounge lizard's soundtrack.
The problem is, there ain't much to Darin or his story -- at least, not as Spacey's chosen to tell it, using Darin's inner child (actually his younger self, ugh, played by William Ullrich) as a guide through the cleared minefield. By offering up the feel-good version, a movie you can hum along to, his biopic serves only as a giant question mark; why bother if you're going to excise the interesting and naughty bits (an early version of the screenplay references his affection for orgies post-Sandra Dee, and Spacey never mentions their divorce or Darin's troubled, short second marriage) in order to glorify a footnote? Spacey can jazz it up all he wants, with MGM-style musical numbers in which a monologue turns into a performance of "Beyond the Sea" as he courts Sandra (played by Kate Bosworth, who looks throughout the movie as if she wants to flee). But ultimately, the corpse needs more than jazz hands to slap us in the face and keep us awake -- or keep us from laughing out loud.
But what ultimately dooms Beyond the Sea is how torpid it feels, especially when Spacey bogs us down in Darin's protest-folk period; he caves to the genre's worst banalities and cliches, underscored when muttered in self-serious voiceover ("While it looked like Bobby Kennedy might heal the country, Sandy and I drifted farther and farther apart"). The whole affair -- which also includes John Goodman as Bobby's manager and Bob Hoskins as his brother-in-law, two actors who should never be used in a single sitting -- winds up being kinda laughable and kinda pitiable. Don't hate Kevin Spacey for making Beyond the Sea, but you can feel sorry for him.