The first thing you hear in Kevin Spacey's Beyond the Sea, even before there's a picture to go along with it, is the sound of snapping fingers. Singers don't snap their fingers anymore, just as dancers no longer see a need for jazz hands. But there was a time, back in the late-'50s and early-'60s, when you'd hardly be let out on a stage if you weren't able to snap your fingers. And nobody, I mean nobody, snapped his fingers like Bobby Darin, the subject of this respectful biopic, which Spacey produced, directed, co-wrote and (having committed the grandiose error of casting himself) stars in.
What Bobby Darin knew that nobody else knew was that finger-snapping involves your whole body. It involves the wrist. It involves the arm. It involves the other arm. It involves the shoulders, the legs, the feet and, last but not least, the head, which does a little tilt-snap of its own. One thing you can say about Darin, whose life's mission was to out-Sinatra Sinatra, was that he was every ounce an entertainer. He didn't have Sinatra's voice. He didn't have Sinatra's blue eyes. But he could sell a song that other singers couldn't give away, throwing everything he had at it.
He had to, according to Beyond the Sea and just about everything that's ever been written about this troubled troubadour. For Darin, who'd had rheumatic fever five times before he was 12, lived his whole life under a death sentence, his weakened heart ticking away the hours like a broken watch. "Bobby needed to become a legend by 25," Darin's son, Dodd, wrote in his family memoir, Dream Lovers, "because he expected to be dead by 30." And the watch wasn't off by much. In 1973, having reinvented himself as many times as Madonna ever would, Darin took his final bow. He was 37.
It's easy to see why Spacey was drawn to Bobby Darin, especially when you learn that he spent many a childhood hour warbling "Mack the Knife" into his mother's hairbrush. Darin stood at the crossroads of big-band swing and rock 'n' roll - Frank Sinatra and Mick Jagger, Vegas and Altamont. And like Elvis, he paid a price for it. But the tragic ending was just the icing on the cake. Spacey wanted the cake. He wanted to trade in that hairbrush for a microphone, slap on the tux and the toupee, start those fingers snapping and bring back that whole ring-a-ding-ding approach to entertainment. He wanted to be Bobby Darin.
That he fails is a tribute to the indefinable quality we call charisma. Darin had it. Spacey, despite two Oscars, doesn't. He does all his own singing and dancing, and the best you can say for either is that he achieves a reasonable facsimile. But unlike Jamie Foxx in Ray, Spacey doesn't bring very much of his own star power to his characterization of Darin. An accomplished mimic, he gets all the notes right, makes all the right moves, although rarely with Darin's snap, crackle and pop, his incredible sense of ease. And you start to wish some younger actor had gotten the assignment. It's a little late in the day for Spacey to be gargling "Splish Splash."
He must think he's found a way around the age issue by structuring the movie as Darin's own look back at his life and showbiz career. De-Lovely used a similar device vis-Ã-vis Cole Porter, although not quite so awkwardly, and at least we're offered an explanation for why Darin, newly hatched as a teen idol, looks old enough to be his own father. And at least we don't have to be quite so creeped out when Darin, having broken into movies, sets his sights on America's favorite teenager, that vision of powder-puff innocence, Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth). Theirs is a match made in Hollywood Heaven, and Bosworth is, if anything, even more virginal than Dee.
Not for long, of course. Like all biopics these days, Beyond the Sea traces a rise-and-fall arc, and Spacey devotes as much, if not more, time to the fall as to the rise. Married to his career, Darin doesn't know what to do with himself when the Beatles and the Stones wash ashore, and Dee, who's ridden Gidget and Tammy to stardom, doesn't know what to do with herself when women start burning their bras. So he disappears to Big Sur, returning a few years later as a Dylan-esque folk singer, and she disappears into a shot glass, never to climb her way back out. From this bummer of a second act Spacey manages to carve out a happy ending, but only with the help of fantasy.
Speaking of which, the production numbers, of which there are several, have a nice kick to them. Spacey imagines them as scenes out of some golden-age Hollywood musical, complete with studio backlot and people who drop whatever they're doing when suddenly overcome with a case of dancing feet. Exactly what this has to do with Darin, who never starred in musicals, is anybody's guess. But these are among the few moments when the movie has as much pizzazz as Darin himself had, right down to the tips of those snapping fingers. He wasn't quite a legend at 25, but he worked legendarily hard at it his whole life, always with one eye on that broken watch.