Friday, December 17, 2004

Movie Review

Kevin Spacey as Bobby Darin in Beyond the Sea: His Bad

In the TV series Wiseguy (1988) and the movies The Ref (1994), Swimming with Sharks (1995), The Usual Suspects (1995), L.A. Confidential (1997), and American Beauty (1999), Kevin Spacey seemed immune to the sentimental weaknesses of common human feeling, and in him it came across as heroic. He could be unlikeable, wrongheaded, corrupt, even sociopathic, but his ringing theatrical confidence made you want more of the same. (He had panache even when he played, or the character just pretended to be, vulnerable.) He was kind of stiff but physically imposing because his body was backed up by that sense of command and impenetrable attitude. No American actor had ever been more formidable in confrontations, and you didn't care if he was a good or evil knight, you just wanted to see the bullets bounce off his armor.

Spacey hasn't lost his skills but he seems to have lost his way. Of course, there were, and still are, limitations to what he's so good at. He was unremarkable as a conventional action-picture hero in The Negotiator (1998) because his heroism is essentially ironic, combative--contempt is the lightning that gives his monsters life. In addition, he's so much more verbal than physical an actor that he presents a figure of potency without eroticism. Which is to say he doesn't really work opposite women. (In The Ref he and Judy Davis compete against each other's high-comedy skills with amazing snap but they play a divorcing couple so the dissonance between them makes sense; they don't have to meld entirely. Click here for my full-length review.) He can be so enviably scary in conflict it's hard to imagine what he could relax into if he ever let his guard down. He's a magnificently skilled technician but more than slightly monolithic. That is to say, Spacey's undeniable charisma is undeniably cold.

Not to mention, the sentimentality that refuses to stick to Spacey's surface is generally essential to stardom in American movies. I believe when he went after a wider audience in 2000 he did it out of a sincere desire to connect, to avoid being cast in concrete as the most impervious, rebarbative, isolated of men, however sensationally gifted. You can't blame a guy for trying something new, but nobody is given every kind of talent. This shouldn't be read as a manifesto in favor of typecasting, but some of the greatest movie stars had relatively limited ranges precisely because of the intensity of their personalities--James Cagney and Bette Davis are perhaps the clearest examples.

Toward the end of L.A. Confidential and about half-way through American Beauty Spacey's characters reform, become more like "us." And in both movies he's killed, as if the makers couldn't imagine what purpose a softened Spacey could serve. American Beauty also makes the mistake of justifying his extreme acidulousness--it's his wife's fault, society's fault, suburbia, homophobia. Once he burns past his disdain he goes gooey--and he hasn't looked back since.

In Pay It Forward (2000), K-PAX (2001), The Shipping News (2001), and The Life of David Gale (2003), Spacey moved to the opposite end of the range from the persona that had made him stand tall: his characters are inexperienced, frustrated, manipulable, hurting, alienated, scarred, waxy, numb, tongue-tied, sad-eyed. Bette Davis memorably played a victim of bad parenting in Now, Voyager, but think how much earlier in that picture she got her extreme makeover and became "herself" than Spacey develops brave-boy gumption in The Shipping News. The ranting drunk scenes of David Gale might have been an avenue of development but they get lost in the movie's inept, preposterous combination of philosophical-legal tidbittery and overingenious crime plotting.

Spacey is theater veteran enough to know there's a calculus as to how far a star can stray beyond audience expectations. I hope at least that K-PAX and David Gale have persuaded him that nobody wants to hear baby talk from him (unless to make fun of someone, preferably to his face). And he should definitely swear off tender sex scenes with a trembly inexperienced lover, whether he's the trembler (Pay It Forward, The Shipping News) or the actress opposite him is (American Beauty, The Life of David Gale, and the new Beyond the Sea). From Pay It Forward on, Spacey has failed to build on his coterie rooting section, which, by the same stroke, he has managed to disperse. He's convinced us he's not really cold; the perhaps unintended upshot is that he isn't cool anymore, either.

There are still plenty of great roles solidly in Spacey's main line: Has any American actor, ever, been better suited by temperament to play Coriolanus? And he's so good opposite Judy Davis in The Ref that it's painfully tantalizing to imagine them going at it as Beatrice and Benedick. Instead, his new starring vehicle Beyond the Sea, which he also co-produced and directed, and in which he sings and dances, is a biopic of the pop singer Bobby Darin. Spacey doesn't invoke the pathos of his previous four movies, although Darin lived to see his headlining career dry up before he died young of heart failure due to childhood rheumatic fever. But neither does he return to his mode as ironic "hero." He plays the Bobby Darin story as straight heroics. Yes, Bobby Darin.

Born in 1936, Darin came to nightclub singing in the late '50s, at about the last possible minute, after rock 'n' roll had already siphoned off the younger audience. But Darin implemented the "jazzy" stylings of more accomplished artists alongside some rockabilly yips and yodels in such an affectedly informal, slick way he was able to concoct a string of adult-teen hits, including his signature song "Mack the Knife."

Lest anyone forget, the original "Mack the Knife," with music by Kurt Weill and lyrics by Bertolt Brecht (from their 1928 German musical Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera), a quintessentially Weimar-era modernization of John Gay's satirical 1728 London smash The Beggar's Opera), is about a thief and murderer. Weill's music sounds like something ground out by a mournful strolling organ-grinder, a sound that plays off the lyrics' blandly sinister coyness about Macheath's evasion of detection. Ramped up to swingin' speed, Darin's version sounds as if he were singing about a raffish movie star making a triumphant return to Tinsel Town ("Look out, ol' Mackie's back!"), with the ladies lined up and waiting. In possibly the crudest move of all, Darin includes among those ladies "Miss Lotte Len-YA," Weill's wife and one of the musical's original Berlin stars.

Darin used flashy techniques for maximum effect, with minimum inspiration and aesthetic investment. His catalogue is a fool's-goldmine of variation without invention. And "Mack the Knife" isn't the most jaw-dropping among the nuggets. That would have to be "Artificial Flowers," which tells a story that combines "The Little Match Girl" and La Bohème in a ludicrously inappropriate style, both lachrymose and coked-out on rhythm. (I love "Artificial Flowers" but not as a model of artistry.) Darin's specialty was his undoing once the counterculture got underway; by the '70s Steve Martin included "Mack the Knife" in his stage act as the ultimate symbol of gaudy show biz insincerity, automatically good for a laugh.

Darin made movies, too, and on the set of Come September he met another plastic icon of the era, Sandra Dee, the peroxide-blonde, baby-fat starlet of Gidget, Imitation of Life, and A Summer Place. (And likewise a butt of '70s wise-ass satire, in the song "Look at Me, I'm Sandra Dee" from Grease.) The two married when Dee was either 16 or 18, depending on your source. Dee was considerably less talented than Darin and apparently more troubled, and her career was over by time they divorced in 1967, when she was about 25.

What Kevin Spacey sees in this material is mystifying. If he wanted to make a musical why didn't he make a version of The Threepenny Opera itself, or The Beggar's Opera? Or if he wanted to sing American pop standards then how about a version of Pal Joey, one faithful to John O'Hara's antiheroic conception and the original Rodgers & Hart score (unlike the Frank Sinatra botch from 1957)? The lead roles in those shows are squarely within his range, and I don't just mean age range. (Spacey, now 45, plays Darin from his early 20s until his death at age 37.) He's way too saturnine to play a young man hopped-up on ambition (although his regression to a cocky teen made for the best of his hypnotism sessions in K-PAX).

Spacey has referred to Darin as a "hero" of his, but what we see Darin do in the movie is more driven than heroic, more instinctual than principled. In Beyond the Sea Spacey has left his trademark irony so far behind that the booze-soaked, teenaged Darin-Dee romance plays as momentously ill-fated, something like Darin's snappy rendition of Tristan und Isolde. What's weird is that the movie in its random way shapes Darin and Dee's marital troubles for irony, when, for instance, Sandy is miffed because Bobby has a bigger magazine spread than she does, or when Bobby's tantrum on the night he failed to win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar leads to a contest between the couple to see who can pack a suitcase faster and leave the other one first. But this irony doesn't lead to anything--they're still the Bobby Darin and the Sandra Dee to starstruck Kevin Spacey.

Perhaps Spacey sees as heroic how Darin spends his free time when his career stalls after the British Invasion and the Summer of Love: he campaigns for Bobby Kennedy in 1968 and protests the Vietnam War. The camp highlight of Beyond the Sea for me was when Darin, reading the Los Angeles Times in the late '60s, writes "DON'T WANT A WAR!" underline, underline, underline above an announced troop deployment and then draws an X over Lyndon Johnson's face. I'm afraid this is the sort of thing Sandra Dee is referring to later in the movie when she apologizes to Darin for not being an "intellectual" like him.

The problem isn't that Spacey is bad at anything he does as a performer here. He can sing and he imitates Darin's tricks impeccably (which means, however, that the soundtrack is impeccably, reverently, replicated slop). Spacey is good enough that I thought he should have played Dennis Potter's Singing Detective last year because, unlike Robert Downey, Jr., he has the vituperative, rhetorical delivery necessary to hold the piece together. Rather, the problem with Beyond the Sea is the choice of material--and not just Darin but the biopic formula itself. As director, Spacey uses a relatively user-friendly "avant-garde" framing device, like the one in the Cole Porter biopic De-Lovely (click here for my review), and it should have made him think: Was there something about the enterprise he was embarrassed to present straight?

With Cole Porter, once you hear the songs, objections subside. You know why they made the movie. With Bobby Darin, the material could have been handled sympathetically and still shaped for irony by presenting him as a cocky kid with show biz push who made such a mark so young he got trapped in his successful career. This is a readily generalizable form of irony: be careful what you wish for, especially when you're an adolescent. The Darin we see is super eager for experience the way all kids are, precisely because they lack it and are too young to know, or care, that only experience could guide them wisely so they'd better slow down. Darin's great good luck was bad luck, too, his career made and unmade by the same stroke of artistic "genius" on his part.

The movie does show Darin himself coming to prefer counterculture-era music. But then it also shows him overcoming a bad experience with an acoustic set at The Copacabana by razzing the same anti-war song up with a gospel choir on a stage in Vegas. In other words, Darin figures out how to put the new music over in Vegas the way he had figured out how to put the old music over in nightclubs. I wish Spacey were less like Bobby Darin and more like Coriolanus, i.e., more resistant to giving the audience what they want. It's doubly a drag because now that Spacey has gone soft who else is there with comparable comedy skills who doesn't care first and foremost about being liked? Catherine Keener, Bill Murray, our ironist emeritus, and that's about it.

You can't get much more Hollywood than a movie about a performer in which success is synonymous with quality. But the movie is only tin on the outside. Kevin Spacey apparently thinks of Darin as a genuinely great performer. It's no surprise that Beyond the Sea has won this unqualified endorsement from Darin and Dee's son on the official Bobby Darin website. It's the kind of movie a doting mother couldn't have improved on had she made it herself.

You can find this review and a lot besides at Blogcritics.

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