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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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