The Singing Detective. Paramount Classics presents a film directed by Keith Gordon. Written by Dennis Potter. Running time: 109 minutes. Rated R (strong sexual content, language and some violence). Starring Robert Downey Jr., Robin Wright Penn, Mel Gibson, Jeremy Northam, Katie Holmes, Adrien Brody, Jon Polito, Carla Gugino, Saul Rubinek, Alfre Woodard.

Singing Detective, The

In the mid-1980s, a bizarre, six-hour miniseries called The Singing Detective premiered on PBS. An eclectic mix of drama, comedy, musical, and film noir, The Singing Detective never became very popular, because the most people would change the channel once they realized that it was artsy. However, it gained a small but passionate following among those who took took the time to watch it all. Now, the film adaptation, written by the late Dennis Potter, the creator of the miniseries, is on a limited run through America. The Singing Detective succeeds on several levels, effortlessly mixing the many different themes of the miniseries; it should please fans (I am not one, but after seeing this, I plan to seek the show out). Mainstream movie-goers will likely be baffled.

Dan Dark (Robert Downey Jr.) is a pulp fiction author, confined to a hospital bed with a debilitating (and disgusting) skin condition. The disease has also affected his mind, making him cynical, loud, and abrasive (when told his plants at home are dying, he says, "Good. I hope they suffer."). As he recovers, he fantasizes himself as the hero of his first novel, The Singing Detective, about a '50s crooner who is also a detective. His ex-wife, Nicola (Robin Wright Penn), visits the hospital often, and she plays a key role in his imaginings. Dark's psychiatrist (Mel Gibson, nearly unrecognizable), believes that Dark's fantasies stem from his childhood, and that childhood trauma has caused his violent temper. Other characters who play a role in Dark's fantasy are Nurse Mills (Katie Holmes) and a pair of bumbling hoods (Adrien Brody and Jon Polito) who may or may not be real.

Not only does Dark imagine his novel, his fevered mind also occasionally imagines the hospital staff breaking into song and dance. Changed from the miniseries's '40s pop songs into early rock tunes, these numbers aren't staged as lavish musical productions, but are simply emphasized by colored lights and certain set pieces. Two of the best are "At the Hop" and "Mr. Sandman."

Director Keith Gordon has infused The Singing Detective with style. The different aspects of the story are easy to tell apart, as each type has a distinctive style. The real-life hospital scenes are bright and vibrant, whereas the Dark's fantasies are more dreary and washed out, employing lots of film noir-style shadows. Dark's dream sequences employ a lighter color scheme, The song-and-dance numbers stand out not only because people are singing, but because the color scheme is different from anything else. Even if you aren't paying very close attention, it is not hard to tell which is which.

It is only in trying to compact a 6-hour series into 109 minutes that The Singing Detective falters. Some scenes feel rushed in an attempt to fit them in, whereas others seem to drag a little much (I don't know what this is a result of; maybe just a generous editor). Some characters, such as Dark's father's partner, Mark Binney (Jeremy Northam) are not completely developed, and occasionally feel like afterthoughts. Especially the two hoods, who have an important part to play in the film's conclusion, are left half-developed; if you stop paying attention for too long, you might completely miss what their point is.

But any problems with The Singing Detective's running length are overshadowed by Robert Downey Jr.'s superb performance. It is a deep, multi-faceted portrayal that reinforces him as one of the best under-forty actors working today. In some scenes, Dan is vehemently angry, screaming obscenities. In others, he has to lip-sync to 50s rock songs. And in still others, Downey Jr. plays the typical film noir hero, strange voice alterations and all. The supporting players, including Mel Gibson in a skull cap and glasses, Katie Holmes, Robin Wright Penn, and Adrian Brody, all do strong work, but this is Downey Jr.'s movie through and through. It simply could not succeed without him.

And The Singing Detective does succeed. Hardcore fans of the miniseries will be delighted (although perhaps unhappy with some of the reported changes to the story), and even those who are not will be entertained (provided they enjoy more "artsy" films). Viewers used to big-budget blockbusters will not know what to think of it, but this film was not made for them.

Some movies, it has been said, are worth seeing simply for a performance. The Singing Detective doesn't quite fit that description, as it does many things well, but Downey Jr.'s pitch-perfect showing makes it as good as it is.

© 2003 Matt Noller