Well-Furnished Failure

Kevin Spacey's biopic, supposedly about Bobby Darin, ends up being more about Spacey

One of the annoying things that instructors repeat all the time in film school is that film is a visual medium. No duh! But it seems that some of these lessons are not being learned by today's old and down-going filmmakers.

Kevin Spacey's two-hour love letter to himself, Beyond the Sea, is loaded with gorgeous, sweeping shots of dancers sliding down city streets and gliding across shiny stages. Still, in spite of this obvious appreciation for visual spectacle, Mr. Spacey seems to think that no one in the audience is going to see that he's a million years old and playing a teenager. Which maybe would happen, if it weren't for the weird prosthetic nose and gunky makeup that's been caulked all over his face.

Mr. Spacey plays Bobby Darin in this biopic (pronounced "biopic") about the life of the smooth-as-silk crooner who died at age 37. Mr. Spacey is currently 44 going on my-face-is-falling-off. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but seeing him play the teenage Bobby Darin, opposite the actually teenage Kate Bosworth as Sandra Dee, is, well, a little creepy.

Still, it's an ambitious film, and even though it generally fails, it has quite a few fine moments. Spacey sings all the songs, and he's actually a pretty good singer. The musical numbers are well-choreographed and well-shot, and the script is frequently awful and artificial. Wait, that's not an upside. But still.

The big surprise in Beyond the Sea is Bosworth, who gives a surreal performance as Sandra Dee. Bosworth's performance is so interesting, because she doesn't seem like a real person: She seems like Sandra Dee, who, at least in her films, came across as something like a cross between Jessica Simpson and plywood.

Bosworth really brings Dee to life, and the best moments come when innocent teen actress Dee starts saying things like, "That's just fucking great!" while she swirls a scotch with one hand and holds a lit Benson and Hedges 100 with the other.

It's that kind of attention to detail that keeps Beyond the Sea from being The Mirror Has Two Faces. As the film progresses from Darin's early successes in the 1950s to his balding has-been status in the 1960s, the sets undergo complete makeovers, moving from the glitzy look of a mid-century lounge to a sort of space-age Danish modern. This is the only time I can remember coming out of a movie with my dominant impression being, "I wish I had that furniture."

The problem is that a beautifully constructed set of sets isn't enough. With a biopic, you need something to tie together a person's life, and most people's lives don't really have plots.

Spacey uses what I think could have been an interesting trick, had it not already been done to death elsewhere: He sets up his film as a film-within-a-film. In the beginning, Darin assembles all his friends and family to make a biopic about himself. They debate about how to start their movie, and then the kid who plays Darin as a kid interrupts and sets everyone straight. The wisdom of children! The framing device of last resort!

Spacey also uses this device to address one of the chief criticisms of his film: In the opening sequence, a reporter comes up to Darin and asks him if he isn't a little too old to be playing himself. Darin was probably never too old to be playing himself, since he died so young, so when he responds with, "How can you be to old to play yourself?" this is clearly Spacey talking, and it's the key to the film. This isn't so much Spacey's film about Darin as it is Spacey's film about himself. He writes; he directs; he stars; he soaks up pretty much every second of camera time.

In short, Spacey made a film about a subject that he loves. Which is really not such a bad thing to do, and Beyond isn't such a bad film; it's just not nearly as good a film as Spacey seems to think it is.

I mean, if they were to give an Academy Award for Most Ambitious Failure, and for some reason Alexander were excluded, I'm sure Kevin Spacey's two-hour love letter to himself would take the prize. As distracting as it is to watch an old man play a teenager, or to see Kevin Spacey with a weird-looking prosthesis on his nose and way too much eyeliner, you can't say he didn't go for it, even if "it" was something along the lines of "indulging himself." It turns out that Spacey wanted the camera to lie lovingly upon him, and for everyone to applaud him and look at him and adore him, but, at least according to Beyond the Sea, that's also what Darin wanted. Well, that and some awesome furniture.

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