MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Beyond the Sea’

One of the most genuine tributes ever offered by one artist to another, Kevin Spacey’s “Beyond the Sea” tops the retro fever that has revived Bobby Darin.

Spacey, the actor whose love of Darin’s music began with his boyhood LPs and his late mother Kathleen’s enthusiasm for the singer, stars as Darin. He does a remarkable job singing like him (close enough for a good cigar), and also directed, produced and largely wrote a movie that despite “bio pic” touches is sincere, hip and very entertaining.

OK, the snag issue: Spacey is 45. Darin, who achieved fame as a wet-lipped rocker and then Sinatrafied swinger in his 20s, died at 37 in 1973. Close-ups remind us that Spacey is not boyish. But since Darin disliked his looks (and much of his “Dream Lover” phase), and was a show baby far past his years in talent and attitude, let’s all cut this ultimate Darin fan some slack – and enjoy his enjoyment.

Spacey is a zappy guy. He slaps down the age issue at the start with a quip, when Darin (this is fantasy) makes a career retrospective that opens up his memories. Music powers almost every scene.

Age does squeak when Darin moves from his “Splish Splash” and “Mack the Knife” fame to filming “Come September” with virginal beauty Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth, radiant yet no mere cutie). It was typical of the bravo Darin to make a play for Dee’s mother first as tactical maneuver, but when Spacey performs this ploy (amusingly) the mother does seem more like fair game.

The film tells how Walden Robert Cassotto became hit-maker Bobby Darin, tried to become folk singer Bob Darin, then returned to the clubs and casinos that were his true home before dying of congenital heart illness. Bobby rose from sick kid (appealing William Ullrich) in a scrape-along New York family thick with secrets: He idolized the mother (Brenda Blethyn) who was, as he found only much later, actually his grandmother, while his “sister” Nina (Caroline Aaron), whom he often treated badly, was his real mother.

Spacey traces these Freudian knots with some juiced performances (including Bob Hoskins as Nina’s dog-loyal husband, and John Goodman as agent Steve Blauner). It’s both real and sentimental filler. He takes a very retro bounce off Darin’s film career (the Oscar moment is a peach), and packs in the Darin songs to dramatize episodes, as when the courtship of Dee soars along to “Beyond the Sea” (overtured by Charles Trenet’s original, “La Mer”).

There is much crafty blocking on stage sets, and the atmospherics are good for an American idol movie shot mainly in Germany, using German financing. Some dance numbers, while fun, are rather laid-on, and certain life passages ring as deluxe updates on “This Is Your Life” (itself restaged). Darin’s arrogance and sexual piracy are perhaps under-served.

The argument will be made that Spacey is too much a cool customer, that he (born Kevin Spacey Fowler) isn’t Italian and lacks the volatile “show beast” force that made Darin’s stardom such a hot projectile. But he certainly digs Darin, all the way, and deep empathy with a role (united with talent) counts for a lot in acting.

It is curious that Spacey’s touring stage show as Darin has more of the pure Bobby voltage, the club fever. But the film is also a work of devotion and guts. Though pushed along quickly on a trim budget, this is a stunning salute, for Spacey’s love for Darin’s music and his “gotta play the Copa” era is so keen that “Beyond the Sea” surfs on pure affection.

A Lion’s Gate Films release. Director: Kevin Spacey. Writers: Kevin Spacey, Lewis Colick. Cast: Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, Bob Hoskins, John Goodman, Caroline Aaron, Brenda Blethyn and William Ullrich. Running time: 1 hr., 58 min. Rated PG-13. 3 1/2 stars.