Reel Time

Another Biopic Contest!

Plus, Steven Soderbergh’s dopey Ocean’s Twelve.

Spacey: uncanny

More Bio-pickery: One evidently has to begin a review of Kevin Spacey’s Bobby Darin biopic Beyond the Sea (Lions Gate) by paying tribute to the actor-director’s dedication in shepherding the project to the screen after nearly two decades of development. But the vehicle itself is the prototypical Oscar-bait ego trip: the life of an unstable hotdog lounge lizard with a heart weakened by childhood rheumatic fever. (He makes a big Vegas comeback, leaves the audience cheering, then collapses in the wings to suck from an oxygen tank.)

Spacey’s Darin has been called “uncanny,” a judgment that I find equally so. His vocals are spot-on, but the only uncanny thing about the rest of the performance is the low proportion of Darin to Spacey—an edgy actor who’s most in his element when his characters are self-absorbed and/or casually cruel. There might be a movie in the life of an Italian kid who strove all his life to top Sinatra—whose naked desperation to be “cool” was pretty much a contradiction in terms. Darin did a fair impersonation of a swingin’ cat, though. He had a warm, supple baritone, and he was such a lean, lithe little bopper—always jiggering around the stage, with one eye on the audience—that he could break down your defenses against cock-of-the-walk Copa types. Darin’s pleasure in conquering an audience and Spacey’s pleasure in nailing Darin’s vocals ought to have merged, but they don’t, somehow. The emphasis is on Spacey’s feat, not his subject’s.

Spacey brusquely discarded many producers and screenwriters over the years and eliminated the less savory aspects of Darin’s life, homogenizing as he went along. He squanders Bob Hoskins and John Goodman: They are literally supporting actors, having no function here except to support him. Apart from Caroline Aaron’s turn as Darin’s overbearing sister—a part she has played before, but never with such haggard vulnerability or on such a pedestal—Beyond the Sea has nothing to recommend it.

Well, it does offer a Whitman’s Sampler of biopic clichés, from its flashback structure, to its treatment of the protagonist’s disintegrating marriage to actress Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth), to its masterstroke: the presence of a phantom moppet. Yes, it’s Bobby’s Childhood Self. They two trade significant looks during biographical milestones, and when the dying Darin is finally reconciled to his past, the occasion is marked by a big MGM-style song-and-dance number featuring Grown-Up Bobby and Kid Bobby.

Beyond the Sea is narrated by Bobby, who utters the worst biopic line I’ve heard in years—an exceedingly bogus attempt to connect the personal and the sociopolitical:

“While it looked like Bobby Kennedy might heal the country, Sandy and I drifted farther and farther apart.”

I know we’ve pretty much worn out the biopic subject, but in light of all the e-mails still coming in and the upcoming release of two excellent biopics, The Aviator and The SeaInside, let me invite you to submit an archetypal biopic line that is stupider than the one above. The winner gets a copy of The Making of Alexander, by Robin Lane Fox. The runner-up gets a copy of De-Lovely: Behind the Creation of the MGM Motion Picture… 9:09 a.m.

Twelve: Going nowhere, fast

The Dirty Dozen: Steven Soderbergh has said that Ocean’s Eleven was the most difficult shoot he has ever done. I had fun at that movie, but I understand his pain. An ostentatious experimentalist, Soderbergh had little to sink his teeth into: It was an uncommonly fluid (for Soderbergh) formula caper flick that relied on momentum, the twinkle of stars, and that’s about it. The director has evidently tried to please himself in the sequel, Ocean’s Twelve (Warner Bros.), which might not turn out to have been a good thing. The new film has an artier construction, a twistier scam, a more pretzeled syntax, and many, many more star cameos and in-jokes.

The cameos and in-jokes are a plus—I actually lobbied for them in my review of Ocean’s Eleven, on the grounds that a generic caper comedy (is there any other kind?) needs all the help it can get, and that the stars themselves are bound to be more interesting than the elemental characters they play. Ocean’s Twelve has its bright spots: Those actors can sure wear clothes, and the air of informal swankiness is a treat. It opens sensationally with Brad Pitt sneaking out on agent Catherine Zeta-Jones after a night of amour—she’s about to discover he’s the culprit of a heist she’s investigating. There’s a delightful farcical centerpiece involving Julia Roberts that would be downright mean to spoil, and George Clooney is all by himself among living leading men in making smarm pass triumphantly for charm. But the movie lacks momentum, clarity, a decent payoff, and a location with the personality of Vegas.

If a caper comedy can’t sustain a narrative line, all the goofy set-pieces in the world will come to naught. A caper is a narrative—an intriguing one, from an engineering perspective. That’s why so many of us have endured episodes of Mission: Impossible despite a cast of monotonic robots: We wanted to watch a good hoodwinking scheme play itself out. Ocean’s Twelve disintegrates along with its linearity. Two days after seeing it, I can’t even remember how it ended. But I do remember Julia Roberts’ endearing whoops of panic.  … 7:42 a.m.