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Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2005
Adrift and off course
By KAORI SHOJI
It's tough when someone you've known and respected for a long time contracts what a friend of mine calls "Sudden Idiot Syndrome," or S.I.D. In the presence of a person struck by S.I.D., you hardly know what to say or how to react; there's even a nightmarish aspect to it all.
This is the feeling I got watching Kevin Spacey star in "Beyond the Sea," his directorial debut. I kept waiting to awaken and see the Spacey I knew, the actor who gave new dimensions to the word "snide" and who once told a reporter: "I can't talk to you; your IQ is too low."
"Beyond the Sea" is full of surprises, but the biggest is probably the sheer ardor and enthusiasm Spacey showed in getting the project made. A bio-pic of 1960s lounge singer and entertainer Bobby Darin, Spacey waited 10 years to get things in swing and invested four years in singing and dance practice, just to play the role of Bobby. The whole package belongs to Spacey, and him alone. Not only can you see his fingerprints plastered all over its surface, it reeks of his after-shave (no doubt a 1960s brand). It's one thing to sense a director's blood and sweat in the frames; it's another thing entirely to see his personal tastes so adamantly expressed, with all other concerns relegated to afterthoughts.
But to stress that this isn't entirely an ego trip, and to set a certain "I-know-what-I'm-doing" tone, Spacey puts one telling scene up front: Bobby Darin, surrounded by his entourage, appears onstage and begins to sing the opening bars to "Mack the Knife." But he stops abruptly and calls a break, to the disgruntled moans of other cast members ("We've been doing this same take all morning!") -- it appears that Darin is making his own bio-pic and he's displeased with the filming. As he frets, a journalist who had been waiting for an interview calls out: "Aren't you too old to be playing this part?" At this, Darin's valet Charlie (Bob Hoskins) says, in angry protest, "Of course he's not too old. Who else is going to play this, except him?"
Age is obviously an issue that the star director would like us to forget about. Bobby Darin died at the age of 36 and Spacey is now 46, and this device was probably meant to serve as both excuse and justification. Unfortunately, the self-awareness halts here as "Beyond the Sea" launches into earnest bio-pic mode. He plays Darin from his late teens to his death in 1973, and, however wonderful his hoofing and crooning may be (and it must be noted that he has Darin's voice and movements down), rare is the moment we can forget that we're watching a man of nearly 50, caked with makeup over a prosthetic nose, acting the part of someone half his age.
The discomfort of the experience gets worse when we see Darin courting and then marrying Hollywood teen idol Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth) who was just 16 years old at the time. In real life, the age difference between the couple was eight years -- in this movie, there's a 24-year gap between Spacey and Bosworth.
The scene of the pair on their wedding night (Sandra dissolving into nervous tears, Darin declaring that he'll never touch her until she's ready) recalls a similar situation in "American Beauty," but minus the wit and sarcasm. Kate Bosworth looks ephemeral and lovely, with her hair in bouncy blonde curls, her slender frame offset by a series of coquettish balloon skirts and '60s outfits, but this only makes their relationship look creepier. In the end, this proclamation appears on the screen: "To this day, Sandra Dee is in love with Bobby." Really, Kevin, isn't this a little bit over the top?
The biggest downfall of "Beyond the Sea," however, isn't really Spacey's age so much as the huge disparity between his and Darin's personalities. When Darin was young, he had rheumatic fever and wasn't expected to live past 15. His mother (Brenda Blethyn) was determined that Darin should have a different fate and taught him to sing and dance ("You'll be bigger than that other guy, Frank Sinatra!"), telling him that he was blessed with genuine, Vegas-size charisma that would surely get him out of the Bronx and to the center stage of the Copa Cabana.
She was right. By all accounts anyone who came in contact with Darin couldn't help loving him; he was renowned for his generosity, charm and an unquenchable thirst for the spotlight. Spacey, however, just displays a desire to take center stage. It's not that "Beyond the Sea" is bad so much as misguided. If you want to see Kevin Spacey at his most vulnerable, this is a chance to do so.