The Singing Detective

on October 24, 2003 by Annlee Ellingson
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Part detective story, part rock-and-roll musical, part character study, the surreal “Singing Detective” doesn't so much blend the boundaries of genre as shatter them.

Robert Downey Jr. stars as Dan Dark, a pulp fiction novelist who lies in a hospital bed debilitated by psoriasis and delirious with pain. In his nightmarish daydreams, he imagines that he is his books' character, a private eye dubbed the Warbler because he moonlights as a lounge singer. Embroiled in a mystery that involves the murder of a whore with a connection to an atomic scientist, he's on the lam from a couple of goons (hilariously over-the-top Jon Polito and Adrien Brody). But fantasy spills into reality, and he begins to suspect that his estranged wife is plotting with the very same man who hired him in his fiction story to steal the movie rights to his book. Meanwhile, both in the made-up past and in the hallucinatory present, the characters around him tend to break out into orgiastic song to such ditties as “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window,” “Mr. Sandman” and “Three Steps to Heaven.”

Devilishly handsome in the fantasy sequences, Downey is fantastic as the bedridden Dark as well, covered in grotesque sores, his face twitching with rage, his hands curled tightly into claws. Downey's performance as the bitter, insufferable character is manic in its intensity as he barks out hatefully at anyone who tries to tend to him. Downey owes much to the quippy script by Dennis Potter, who created the 1986 British television series on which the film is based, that provides Downey with brilliantly funny exchanges: “What do you believe in?” “Genocide.” “Your plants are dead.” “Good. I hope they suffered.” Yet the writing is also poetic: “Words make me want to hold my breath,” Dark says. “Who knows what they're going to say. Who knows where they've been?”

Mel Gibson, who also produced the film, here appears in a supporting role unlike any you've seen him in before. As the therapist who aids Dark in his psychological recovery, evoking his troubled childhood in yet another flashed-back-to storyline, he is unrecognizable -- bald, with Coke-bottle glasses that enlarge his eyes to the size of saucers and a high-pitched squeaky voice. It is a wholly unglamorous, magnanimous, revelatory performance. (Unfortunately, however, sometimes the seams in both Downey's and Gibson's heavy makeup show.)

Cinematically, “The Singing Detective” is highly stylized, utilizing expressionist noir lighting for the sexually charged fantasy sequences and crafting a bright, sterile environment in the hospital. Director Keith Gordon and production designer Patricia Norris play gleefully with color: The hospital is white, white, white; the femme fatale wears a red dress, red lipstick and red heels and has red towels and tiles in the bathroom where she is killed; the desert is sepia-toned. The pacing can sometimes become tedious, and the concept of the film can be challenging for those unfamiliar with the source material, but ultimately “The Singing Detective” is a visual delight and an acting tour-de-force. Starring Robert Downey Jr., Robin Wright Penn, Jeremy Northam, Katie Holmes, Carla Gugino and Mel Gibson. Directed by Keith Gordon. Written by Dennis Potter. Produced by Mel Gibson, Steven Haft and Bruce Davey. A Paramount Classics release. Mystery/Comedy/Musical. Rated R for strong sexual content, language and some violence. Running time: 109 min

Tags: musical, adaptation, film noir, mystery, detective, surreal, hospital, doctor, psychological, Keith Gordon, Robert Downey Jr., Mel Gibson, Adrien Brody, Katie Holmes, Robin Wright Penn, Jeremy Northam, Carla Gugino
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