Grade: C

The problem with a labor of love is that it often turns out to be more laborious than lovely. That’s the case with this biopic about Bobby Darin, which Kevin Spacey has struggled to make for years. Now it finally appears, with Spacey not only starring (and singing rather than lip-synching) but co-producing, co-writing and directing as well. One has to admire his ambition and his persistence. It’s a pity one can’t admire the result all that much.

Like “De-Lovely,” the recent biography of Cole Porter, “Sea” is constructed as a retrospective biography, in which the pop singer–whose childhood rheumatic fever was supposed to kill him before he reached his fifteenth birthday but who survived until he was 37, building a career as a recording artist, nightclub performer and movie actor, as well as the husband of Gidget herself, Sandra Dee–recalls the high- and low-lights of his life. At times Spacey’s Darin is shown recreating his onstage act as part of what might be called a film within a film; he also converses with his ten-year old self (William Ullrich). The device is more theatrical than cinematic–the same problem that plagued “De-Lovely”–but it does allow the 45-year old actor to impersonate a much younger man without it seeming totally ridiculous.

Unfortunately, the technique otherwise distances us from the story by giving it an artificial feel that certainly allows for some flamboyant dances and almost surrealistic touches of costuming and setting but simultaneously invites us to experience it more as a piece of craftsmanship than as a resonant drama. You end up admiring some of the effects, but the emotional connection is lacking.

That isn’t to say that Spacey’s treatment doesn’t cover Darin’s life in a fashion that’s fairly comprehensive and, sporadically, quite imaginative. He shows us the child Bobby’s closeness to his singer-mom Polly (Brenda Blethyn, doing a reasonably effective job of suppressing her accent) and, later, his brassy sister Nina (Caroline Aaron), who, in a major twist toward the close, turns out to be more important to him than he’d ever believed. He gives us a pretty good idea of the support Darin got from his manager Steve Blauner (John Goodman) and musical director Dick Behrke (Peter Cincotti), and especially his brother-in-law Charlie (Bob Hoskins), who’s extremely protective and, despite his rough exterior, sensitive to the singer’s needs as well. He stages the character’s courtship of wife-to-be Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth) on a Rome movie set with a colorful insouciance that’s reminiscent of the old M-G-M musicals. He even manages to make the scenes between Darin and his younger self more affecting than arch. In the end, however, it’s a treatment that’s effective in spurts rather than as a whole, and particularly in the final act–as Darin’s career slides in the late sixties and he becomes politically active, attempts a comeback with a very different persona, and then recovers his stage presence even as his health deteriorates–it takes on a rushed, episodic feel.

Still, it’s easy to see why Spacey fought so hard to make the picture. The role of Bobby Darin is the kind any actor would love–a showy part with plenty of big dramatic moments and numerous interludes of charm and humor, as well as extensive song-and-dance routines. The star takes advantage of all the opportunities, never fully inhabiting the character–you’re always aware of the performance, especially in this very stylized context–but it’s still an eye-catching turn. And an ear-catching one, too: Spacey doesn’t lip-synch the songs but sings them on his own, and very convincingly. The star is like a tornado that doesn’t leave much air for those who surround him, but Hoskins makes a solid impression as the likable Charlie, and Blethyn is a powerful force as Polly. Aaron, on the other hand, comes on too strong–she’s a virtual caricature of the pushy broad–and Bosworth’s Dee is less aggressive but just as cliched (as is Greta Scacchi as her possessive mother); nor does Goodman add much more than his bulk as Darin’s long-time manager. Young Ullrich demonstrates the assurance of a seasoned old pro as the young Bobby; it’s one of those uncannily mature child performances that seems almost unreal. “Beyond the Sea” was made on a fairly modest budget, in Germany to boot; and given the limitations it takes some real technical risks, succeeding more often than not.

If one were unkind, he’d note that for all its flourishes and pizzazz, “Beyond the Sea” doesn’t get much beneath the surface of its subject, and even that surface isn’t all that fascinating; for all Spacey’s enthusiasm, Bobby Darin is still a distinctly minor figure in American popular music. But even in an inferior vehicle like this one, the star’s intelligence and talent come across. They’re not enough to make the film recommendable, but they do make it more tolerable than it would otherwise be.