The Singing Detective

"Good"

The Singing Detective Review


Ironically, "The Singing Detective" probably would have been better without the awkwardly integrated songs that signal frequent shifts into fantasy for the picture's acrimonious anti-hero -- a second-rate pulp novelist hospitalized with literally crippling, full-body psoriasis that serves as a metaphor for his rampaging inner demons.

As an acerbically droll psychological drama about the writer's noir-fiction imagination slowly seeping into his tormented reality, this new adaptation of the highly acclaimed 1986 BBC miniseries (both were written by the late Dennis Potter) has many layers of mesmerizing Freudian substance, brought vividly to life by Robert Downey, Jr's fearlessly hostile but slowly warming performance.

Playing Dan Dark -- a bitter soul trapped in a grotesquely scabby, arthritic body -- Downey seethes with such animosity toward the whole world that when his doctors break into a low-budget production number lip-sync of "At the Hop" or his ointment-applying nurse (Katie Holmes) coos "Mr. Sandman" in a sexual daydream sequence, the film overshoots its intended farce because such silliness is so out of character for a man this bitter and full of bile.

That said, if you grin and bear the songs as wacky intermissions from the film's deeper themes, the balance of "The Singing Detective" is an almost hypnotic excursion into the fevered mind and angry heart that hide a wounded soul.

As Dark undergoes treatment from the hospital's oddball shrink (Mel Gibson, remarkably unrecognizable as a balding, bespectacled nebbish), who provokes him with intentionally upbeat quackiness, the reluctant patient slowly begins to emerge physically and psychologically from the shackles of his condition -- or so it seems.

At the same time inside his fevered mind, a whole noir world is taking shape in which Dark is a wiseacre gumshoe (who moonlights as a lounge crooner) embroiled in a convoluted dime-novel mystery. In this shadowy, fragmentary realm, two zoot-suited dim-bulb thugs (Jon Polito and Oscar-winner Adrien Brody) are on his tail as he tries to shake down a smarmy hood (the under-appreciated Jeremy Northam) who employs hookers to steal atomic secrets from scientists.

Directed by the intrepidly atypical Keith Gordon, who has a penchant for psyche-driven stories in which things are often not what they appear ("A Midnight Clear," "Mother Night," "Waking the Dead"), the film depicts its fiction and reality as two unfixed points on a sliding scale of self-consciousness. While the noir story solidifies from primordial bare-stage sets into conceptual projected backdrops then into practical locations, Dark's hospital room becomes subtly more surreal and fallacious as the plot congeals.

Sepia-toned memories of Dark's emotionally scarring childhood with an impoverished mom (the enticing Carla Gugino, now on ABC's "Karen Sisco") who began turning tricks to pay rent serve as stimulus for parts of the detective fantasy (where Gugino turns up again as a sexy doomed informant), which in turn fuels real-world paranoid delusions about being double-crossed by his sympathetic wife (Robin Wright Penn), who then becomes a model for the noir delusion's femme fatale.

While Gordon's grip on all this mutability feels a little tenuous at times, Downey's distinctive, malicious yet sympathetic portrayal of Dark's imprisonment in his own body is a solid mooring on which the director can confidently anchor the story's idiosyncrasie and the complimentary performances of his sublime supporting cast.

The actor's take on Dark's private-dick alter ego who cultivates a weird, fateful sense of self-awareness is equally fine-tuned. A tongue-in-cheek and intentionally two-dimensional amalgam of Bogart, Cagney, Robinson and Mitchum, he's the kind of guy who answers the question "How did you know there was a dame?" by saying "There's always a dame" out of the corner of his mouth while lighting a cigarette.

Although the screenplay was written by Potter, this "Singing Detective" makes curious superficial alterations from its TV inspiration, like the name of the main character (in the series he's ironically called Phillip Marlowe) and the fact that his fantasies now take place in the 1950s instead of the 1930s, which makes the problematic music feel even more incongruous (upbeat sock-hop ditties in film noir?).

But while some may read miscarriage into this film's discombobulation, deliberately conspicuous production design and sometimes intentional provocation (even I found a couple scenes too coarse), if you look past these facades (which are really Dan Dark's concoctions, not the film's), there's astute, cerebral cinema with a wicked sense of humor lurking in "The Singing Detective" for those who want to find it.



The Singing Detective

Facts and Figures

Run time: 109 mins

In Theaters: Friday 14th November 2003

Box Office USA: $0.3M

Distributed by: Paramount Classics

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 39%
Fresh: 41 Rotten: 65

IMDB: 5.6 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director:

Starring: Robert Downey Jr. as Dan Dark, as Nicola, Nina, Blonde, as Dr. Gibbon, as Mark Binney, as Nurse Mills, as First Hood

Contactmusic


Links



Advertisement

New Movies

Julieta Movie Review

Julieta Movie Review

Iconic Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar is back with another powerfully complex female-centred drama, along the...

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping Movie Review

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping Movie Review

An astute satire of the pop music business, this raucous mock-documentary is consistently hilarious from...

War Dogs Movie Review

War Dogs Movie Review

Based on a rather astounding true story, this comedy-drama centres on two stoners who landed...

Swallows and Amazons Movie Review

Swallows and Amazons Movie Review

After a number of films, TV series and stage adaptations, Arthur Ransome's beloved 1930 novel...

David Brent: Life on the Road Movie Review

David Brent: Life on the Road Movie Review

The original BBC sitcom The Office ran for 14 episodes from 2001 to 2003, and...

The Childhood of a Leader Movie Review

The Childhood of a Leader Movie Review

Bold and intelligent, this dark drama is a challenging portrait of the making of an...

Pete's Dragon Movie Review

Pete's Dragon Movie Review

This hugely enjoyable adventure is a loose remake of the 1977 Disney hit that blended...

Advertisement
The Shallows Movie Review

The Shallows Movie Review

With a simple premise and plenty of visual style, Spanish filmmaker Jaume Collet-Serra (Unknown) takes...

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates Movie Review

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates Movie Review

Watching this gross-out comedy, it's clear that the gifted cast and crew had a great...

Nerve Movie Review

Nerve Movie Review

With a premise that feels almost eerily current, this stylish thriller revolves around a phone...

The Carer Movie Review

The Carer Movie Review

Brian Cox gets the role of a lifetime in this warm comedy about living life...

Born to Be Blue Movie Review

Born to Be Blue Movie Review

Writer-director Robert Budreau takes a stylised approach to this biopic of the legendary jazz artist...

Jason Bourne Movie Review

Jason Bourne Movie Review

It's been nine years since Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass collaborated on The Bourne Ultimatum,...

The Commune [Kollektivet] Movie Review

The Commune [Kollektivet] Movie Review

Veteran Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg (Festen, The Hunt) returns to a smaller homegrown story after...

Advertisement
Artists
Actors
    Filmmakers
      Artists
      Bands
        Musicians
          Artists
          Celebrities
             
              Artists
              Interviews
                musicians & bands in the news
                  actors & filmmakers in the news
                    celebrities in the news

                      Go Back in Time using our News archive to see what happened on a particular day in the past.