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Culture Reviews
Beyond the Sea
Until April 15, Tchaikovsky Cultural Center 
Directed by Kevin Spacey. Written by: Kevin Spacey and Lewis Colick. Starring: Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, John Goodman, Bob Hoskins, Brenda Blethyn. 118 mins. USA/Germany/UK.

By Sam Gerrans

Review top sheet: a drama-stroke-musical based on the life of Bobby Darin, an American performer of the sixties and early seventies.

Like almost all biographical films, this one lacks a unifying point other than the person it is about.

And since the film re-heats the currently incredibly famous actor Kevin Spacey (albeit in a sauce of the now relatively obscure Bobby Darin), the key response it evokes is: hey, I never knew Kevin Spacey could sing and dance like that – and at his age, too.

Will you like this film?

Yes, if: lack of a theme doesn’t bother you – you want to see Kev strut his stuff and lose his hair
No, if: like me, when a story doesn’t have a point you want your money back
Maybe, if: the sixties were a reality to you rather than just a chapter in a book you read once about how to grow cash crops of marijuana under fluorescent lights, and now you want to go back there

Comments: this film represents a catalogue of things which happened to Bobby Darin. It has no central conflict driving the drama, and if that’s important to you (and it is to me) you will miss it.

Being not long out of the chair from “Ray” – another musically-minded quasi-biographical fantasy – I was less than ready to weather more of the same. But there you are. It’s a tough job but someone’s got to do it.

As the picture opened, my heart started high and sank by degrees. Starring Kevin Spacey. Great. I like Kevin Spacey. Directed by Kevin Spacey. Hmm. Everyone on a set wants to usurp the director, deep down believing they can do a better job. But very few of them can, particularly actors. But what the hell, give the guy a chance. Maybe he’s one of those all-round geniuses. Screenplay co-written by Kevin Spacey.

Now I was really concerned.

It is a rare thing for even a bone fide talented director to be able to write. It does happen, I mean: James Cameron wrote and directed, among other things, “Aliens” – a great film with a vibrant and surprising theme given the genre: motherhood.

But more often than not, a big-name writer-director means just one thing: this film got the green light on the strength of the name and all the usual stops and checks (otherwise known as development) have either been skipped altogether, or at the very least, majorly reduced.

The result is either outstandingly great (the unique concept the artist had was not polluted or diluted as it was passed up the chain of bureaucratic command on its way to The Money and the director could deliver his vision uninhibited).

Or it’s crap. No one told the director before he started out that he just didn’t have a story; not a professional writer, not a bureaucrat, not an executive. For various reasons they was all too busy, too star-struck, too at lunch, or just too scared to be the first one to say so.

“Beyond the Sea” belongs to this second category.

Out-of-five star ratings:

• Story: **
• Dialogue: **
• Substance:
• Film craft: **

Story comments: the introduction and development of characters is superficial and full of relationships we haven’t fully grasped given the time commitment to music and song.

There was a tear-jerking episode with a moment-of-truth revelation involving a character I simply didn’t recognise. I’m sorry, but the investment just wasn’t there for me to make a big emotional payout. Call me old fashioned, but I need to work up to these things slowly.

The storyline addresses in an inventive way the fact that Spacey is too old to play the role he plays here. But the neatness of this workaround neither detracts nor distracts from the fact that, well, he is way too old to play this role.

The interlocking nature of the framing of the story is clever and seems to have its genesis in theatre. It works absolutely and allows us to observe the tale from several perspectives at once. It was, for me, the most successful aspect of the film.

Dialogue comments: despite the great cast, the problem is that the drama is sequential rather than integral. There is no core engine driving the story, only bits of a life which – no matter how cleverly arranged – do not make up a plot.

There’s not much you can do with that fact, no matter how talented an actor you are.

Substance comments: I defy anyone to tell me what the theme in this film is.

A theme is the DNA, if you like, of the story. It is the theme which gives a story a sense of wholeness and it is better known to people without literature degrees or eighty-thousand dollar debts from two years at film school as the point.

Aristotle says we go to the theatre (and I say, by extension, the cinema) to learn. If all that sound and fury packed into two hours at five dollars per hour ends up signifying nothing, I feel cheated.

Being about someone is not the same as being about something. And biographical films, in my experience, always fall at this fence: they’re not about anything.

“Beyond the Sea” is no exception.

Film craft comments: the film is visually pleasing and has some tastefully choreographed dance routines. But it’s not a musical in the sense of “Chicago” or “Grease”. It teeters on the edge of drama, yet you can’t say it is a drama per se. I don’t mind experimentation and blurring the edges of a genre if it works. In this case, though, it didn’t.

I don’t think Spacey set out to blur any edges. I think he simply didn’t know what he wanted other, that is, than to play the role of director on set. He’d seen it done lots of times – how hard could it be?

A director can get by if he has just two things in large quantities: a grip on the “big picture” – i.e. he knows what he wants overall – and taste. Then all he has to do is keep saying “no” till he sees what he likes.

But I think, if we’re going to be brutal – and sometimes it pays to be – Kevin Spacey doesn’t have either, not in the proportions needed to be a strong director, anyway. If he had, he wouldn’t have made this film.

Not knowing what you’re doing is fine with me – how else are you meant to learn? But the world judges you on your results. The result here is that some of the bits are okay, but there is no cohesion as concerns the whole. And Spacey’s going to find it harder to get the money monsters to fork such big wads into his wagon next time without asking a lot of hard questions first.

Thankfully, none of this prevents him from still being a great actor; with the right direction, of course.

A taste of the story: based on the life of the famous-but-nothing-like-as-famous-as-Elvis sixties’ performer Bobby Darin and featuring his mixed-up adulthood seen partly through the prism of his mixed-up childhood.


Sam Gerrans is a freelance writer and translator: http://samgerrans.com.

28.03.05
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