Pay It Forward should have provided ample warning that Spacey was carving out a niche as a spun-sugar standup guy to rival Robin Williams' Überdecent humans.
But Beyond the Sea, a biopic of '50s crooner Bobby Darin directed and produced by and starring Spacey, should leave no doubt that Spacey is an actor in love with the obvious.
In someone's hands -- maybe anyone but Spacey's (who is too invested in the material) -- Darin could have been a hunk of priceless biopic putty.
Darin was an old-school crooner in the Sinatra tradition who went on to marry perky teen queen Sandra Dee (played by Kate Bosworth, who displays all the charisma of a stick of margarine). Darin then had one of those cataclysmic changes of heart that seem to take such hyperbolic form in show biz, where gold pinky rings are traded for love beads and polymorphous perversity morphs overnight into Kabbalah devotion.
Suddenly hep to the whole Vietnam thing, the archetypal nightclub singer dispensed with the tux and the renditions of "Mack the Knife" and "Splish Splash" and went countercultural. One minute Darin is at the Copacabana entertaining wise guys from Newark and the next he's grown a mustache and is singing protest songs against the Vietnam War to the surf-and-turf crowd.
In Spacey's hands, as with so much of the film, that transformation is just cartoonish; a superficial costume change rather than any understandable change of heart.
Spacey plays Darin like a waxwork figure -- an already dead guy whose placid face, layered in wrinkle-erasing pancake makeup and a serious nose, only mimics expression in the midst of a song. His Darin is a Frankenstein of Hollywood cliches, a la The Jazz Singer -- all scenery-chewing barrio boy climbing to the top with "you ain't heard nothin' yet" determination. Darin is the product of economic deprivation but maternal overcompensation. His sainted Bronx mama Polly (Brenda Blethyn) is a friggin' saint, who nurses him through a life-threatening bout of childhood rheumatic fever that leaves Darin with the heart condition that went on to kill him at the early age of 37. But Polly -- a former belle of the vaudeville stage -- also re-gifts her son a love of music that would eventually overcome even a gimp pumper.
Darin is soon on his way. His old neighborhood kid-self and an entourage of neighborhood palookas tag along as spectators on Darin's grown-up career path, always there to lend perspective and suffer no bullshit. The mystical touch in which Darin carries on conversations with his kid-self is one of innumerable bad choices in this mix of honeyed sentiment, Pennies From Heaven dance numbers and All That Jazz asides. The film is tricked out with a lame "artsy" concept to excuse such hyperbole. It appears, from an opening framing device, that the film is Darin's docudrama of his own life. Maybe it's Spacey's way of saying, "If the film sucks, blame Darin, not me."
Beyond the Sea has a level of hysteria cribbed from old-school movies that Spacey tries to pass off as self-reflexive commentary, but it comes off as simply incompetent and corny. Beyond the Sea is so over the top it almost feels like Spacey could be making a parody of Hollywood biographies. Some might argue that his bracketing device suggests just that, but more likely Spacey has used artifice as a way of excusing his tendency to ham it up.