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If you’re looking for an innocuous family movie to take your kids to over the holidays, you could do worse than “Fat Albert.” The live-action version of Bill Cosby’s 1970s cartoon series–itself based on characters that he developed in his stand-up act, based on his actual childhood friends–is certainly sweet-natured, with uplifting messages about friendship and family, and it studiously avoids the kind of crudity and even mild violence that characterizes so much children’s entertainment these days. That’s a refreshing change.

At the same time, if you’re searching for a really imaginative family movie–one that will have both parents and offspring smiling as they leave the theatre—“Fat Albert” will prove a distinct disappointment. Though inoffensive, it’s also flat and rather tedious; in fact, it resembles its creator in being so laid-back that it sometimes seems positively comatose. In other words, the movie isn’t ready for the junkyard, but it isn’t very fresh, either.

The scenario concocted by Cosby and Charles Kipps is that the animated Fat Albert, whose shows are being repeated on the TV Land cable network, hears one of the viewers–a young girl named Doris (Kyla Pratt) who’s sad over her lack of friends and the recent death of her beloved grandfather–crying as she watches the show; and when her tears hit the remote control, it allows him literally to come through the television in the “real” person of Kenan Thompson. He’s followed by a bunch of his cartoon friends–Rudy (Shedrack Anderson III), Mushmouth (Jermaine Williams), Bill (Keith D. Robertson), Bucky (Alphonso McAuley), Weird Harold (Aaron A. Frazier) and Dumb Donald (Marques B. Houston)–and together they try to help not only Doris but her foster sister Lauri (Dania Ramirez), who also has problems (and on whom Albert quickly develops a crush). The guys interact with a much-changed world while waiting for the old TV series to reappear on the tube so that they can morph back through the screen to their old animated selves–something that’s important not only because the junkyard that’s their home base is being taken over by a rival gang in their absence, but also because as long as they remain in the “real world” they’re gradually fading away. But while here they take the opportunities this new place affords–Mushmouth, for example, starts to speak intelligibly, and Donald becomes a bookworm. (Curiously, these improvements will disappear when they become cartoon figures again–an odd “lesson” indeed.) They attract the ire of a troublemaker–the unduly arrogant, self-promoting Reggie (Omari Grandberry). And they aid both Doris and Lauri in the process. (There’s also an explanation of why Fat Albert morphed into the real world in this particular instance offered by Cosby himself, who shows up in the movie to advise the chunky transplant about what he must do.)

None of this is especially novel, but what’s surprising is how little is done with it. One can imagine the clash between these seventies cartoon figures and twenty-first century life offering great comedic opportunities–just think of the “Brady Bunch” movies as an exemplar in this connection–but nothing much is made of it beyond a few throwaways (the guys are amazed by pop-tops on soda cans, for instance). And despite the attempt to create some hurdles for the gang to overcome (Doris and Lori’s troubles, Reggie’s hostility, the danger that the guys might simply dissipate), the tempo of the picture is kept so flaccid by director Joel Zwick and the performers that not even a smidgen of suspense is generated along the way. The result is a movie so bland and lackadaisical that even the youngest kids and most nostalgic devotees of the old cartoons are unlikely to be enchanted. Even a sort of reunion between Cosby and the real people on whom he modeled the “Fat Albert” characters at the close doesn’t bring the warmth that was clearly intended. And technically the picture is curiously unimaginative, too.

A couple of troublesome points might be noted. One is that in a movie that otherwise avoids a crass commercial element, there’s a virtual blurb for the “Fat Albert” DVD set that’s very intrusive. The other is that in an era concerned about an epidemic of childhood obesity, Albert’s gargantuan size is not only played for laughs but positively celebrated. (And, of course, he seems to suffer no ill effects from it, aside from having to squeeze through a large TV screen while his fellows slide through without difficulty.) These issues would probably not even be noticed if “Fat Albert” were a better movie. As it is, they tend to loom large–if you’ll excuse the pun–even while you’re watching it.


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.