Sunday, January 02, 2005

Movie: Beyond The Sea (2004)

In my college freshman days, the question of greatest recording ever made came up in one of those conversations that only college freshmen have. Several votes were cast for songs by the Clash. There was also a small but vocal Led Zeppelin contingent. When I skulked in from my job at the university library, the issue was put to me. I answered honestly: Bobby Darin’s rendition of ‘Mack the Knife.’ I put in a lot more time at the library after that.

I am an unabashed Bobby Darin fan. A steady stream of bad reviews, like this one from Slate’s David Edelstein, was not about to keep me away from Kevin Spacey’s biopic. I figured I’d find something to like.

I did not, however, expect to find an utterly cracked pinwheel of a movie to love. But that’s where I find myself.

I’m fairly sure that BEYOND THE SEA is not, in critical parlance, a “good” film. There are too many glaring errors, and too often its reach exceeds its grasp. In fact, there’s a real probability that it is, in critical parlance, a “bad” film.

But screw critical parlance. BEYOND THE SEA had me in its thrall from the start, and when it ended I wanted to see it again. Mainly to figure out what the hell I’d just witnessed.

Darin is remembered primarily because of his early death rather than for any specific accomplishment. He was an ambitious performer, one who experimented in different genres and branched out into acting (even receiving an Oscar nomination). But that’s not exactly the stuff of drama.

And the movie doesn’t really offer any. There’s little conflict in the film other than Darin’s race against the clock. (After a childhood plagued by illness, he knew he’d have a shortened life.) Everyone in his circle backs him 110%. So where’s the drama?

It comes from Spacey himself, who demonstrates a hunger for performing that rivals Darin’s own. In essence, that’s what BEYOND THE SEA is about: performance as life. Darin struggles to find acceptance as a protest singer at the same time that he learns his family history was a sham meant to protect him. “Bobby Darin” the entertainer turns out to be no more real than Walden Robert Cassotto the human being. BEYOND THE SEA is the story of a man who realizes that he has to be fake in order to be real, and Spacey embraces this theme with a crazy gusto (co-writing, producing, directing, starring, and doing all of his own singing and dancing) that becomes deeply moving.

The result is a movie that says far more about its creator than its subject. It’s THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST with musical numbers.

I was so captivated by the film that I’m tempted to dismiss its flaws as part of a master plan. The poorly developed supporting characters? That’s because Spacey’s Darin is directing the movie about his own life, and sees everyone else solely in relation to himself – just like we all do. But then come moments that defy my best intentions, like the staging of the title song on what looks like a blustery afternoon in Bavaria, and I begin to question Spacey’s sanity and my own. At times, BEYOND THE SEA veers perilously close to Ed Wood territory, holding you rapt with its deranged enthusiasm. A beat later, it all suddenly makes perfect sense, and Spacey’s passion elevates the entire film into a rarified realm. Whatever was happening, I enjoyed every nutso minute of this movie.

As we were heading home after the show, Rosemarie shook her head and said, “I’m still trying to think of adjectives to describe that.” I offered the only expression that had occurred to me: “That’s the goddamnedest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Miscellaneous: Link

Lawrence Block, soon to be hosting a show about audiobooks on satellite radio, weighs in on abridgment too far.