Beyond the Sea

Kevin Spacey is one of the most interesting actors alive. He can be oily and disgusting, or he can be smooth and suave, and the two are only inches apart. His performance in “Seven” isn’t all that different from the one in “Beyond the Sea,” really; it’s the same soft, distinctive voice, the same smile. All that separates his good characters from his evil ones are whether he infuses his delivery with charm or malice, and whether that smile seems sincere or sinister. Either way, he’s fascinating to watch.

“Beyond the Sea” is Spacey’s second time in the director’s chair (after 1996’s little-seen “Albino Alligator”), and it is clearly a labor of love for him. Directing the life story of crooner Bobby Darin with himself in the lead, Spacey has put his considerable talents to good use on both sides of the camera. The film is as smooth as Darin himself, slickly produced and well-paced, and it also happens to be stuffed with some fantastic music.

The film tells Darin’s story somewhat metaphorically, punctuated with big song-and-dance numbers — glossy, brightly colored spectacles, all of them, with backup dancers and such — that obviously didn’t really happen. Throughout the film, the adult Bobby talks to his younger self (played by an astute little fellow named William Ullrich), getting insight from him into his own psyche — or is it Spacey getting tips on how to play Darin? And then there’s the fact that Spacey is 45, which is eight years older than Darin was when he died, yet plays him from age 20 on up.

I applaud any attempt to make a biopic seem less like a boring recitation of facts and more like a movie, so Spacey’s free-thinking storytelling technique is OK in my book. Because let’s not kid ourselves: To the average viewer, Bobby Darin’s life is not much different from any other celebrity’s. His wife (the actress Sandra Dee, played here by Kate Bosworth) drinks too much; he’s a workaholic who neglects his family; he has demons from his past that need resolving; he uses his art to heal himself.

“Beyond the Sea” makes the point that music made life OK for Darin, and that because of his work, he became immortal. Listening to the soundtrack, you can start to believe it, too. Darin wanted to be the next Frank Sinatra and sing at the Copacabana Club; the record labels wanted him to be the next Elvis and work “American Bandstand.” He bowed to pressure and wrote the silly “Splish Splash,” but from then on (at least for several years) it was standards and big-band tunes like “Beyond the Sea,” “Mack the Knife” and the particularly meaningful “As Long As I’m Singing.” Spacey sings all these songs himself — he dances, too; who knew? — and acquits himself brilliantly. He sounds a bit like Darin, but more importantly, he sounds like a singer who really FEELS the lyrics. The music accounts for half of the film’s charm.

The movie is a tuneful, entertaining story populated by Vegas-style cool cats with retro New York accents. The supporting cast is particularly savory: John Goodman as Bobby’s manager, Bob Hoskins as his brother-in-law, Brenda Blethyn as his ill-fated, doting mother. Character actress Caroline Aaron, whose name you probably don’t know, gives a fantastic performance as Nina, Bobby’s older sister who feels misplaced when Bobby achieves stardom.

I wouldn’t say Spacey and Bosworth exactly have romantic chemistry together, what with his being 24 years older than she is, but they do have enough acting prowess to make their scenes together work. Bobby’s courtship of Sandra while shooting a film in Italy is lovely, marked by a huge “Beyond the Sea” number that has Spacey and dozens of extras dancing all over a million locations and soundstages. It was music that won her over, you see. See what music can do?

Maybe the movie goes too far with all the symbolic stuff, and Spacey’s vision of himself as Darin while Darin is about to star in a movie about himself is probably more, um, spacy than it needs to be. But again, I like that he tried something different, and that he has enough confidence in himself to tell the story of a mostly forgotten icon to an indifferent audience. The fact that he actually succeeds at it is just icing on the cake.

B+ (1 hr., 58 min.; PG-13, a lot of profanity.)