Stuck in a hospital bed, suffering from a debilitating and disfiguring skin disease that leaves him unable to express his creativity, 1940s dime-store detective novelist Dan Dark (Robert Downey Jr.) is slowly losing his mind. Dark imagines himself a character in one of his own novels, chased by hired goons (Adrien Brody and Joe Polito), trying to sort out a mystery involving a dame who looks just like his real-life wife Nicola (Robin Wright Penn), and spending his days singing bouncy songs in a shadowy nightclub. As Dark’s paranoia mounts slowly, the hospital brings in therapist Dr. Gibbon (Mel Gibson) to help the afflicted writer sort it all out before he goes mad.
Director Keith Gordon loves to explore the fractured mind. In his past films, “Waking The Dead” and “Mother Night,” the filmmaker spent a consider amount of screen time trying to disrupt the moviegoing experience with elaborate plotting and shifting perspectives. So it shouldn’t come as any great shock that Gordon was drawn to “The Singing Detective.” Probably the most kaleidoscopic of any recent silver screen head games, “Detective” is loosely based on the novel by Dennis Potter, with Gordon returning to Potter’s original screenplay for this new adaptation. To many, the 1986 BBC production of “Detective” ranks as one of the best word-to-celluloid adaptations of all time, leaving Gordon with quite a load to bear. The previous “Detective” also ran over 6 hours, with the new film’s 108 minute running time small potatoes in comparison.
Because there isn’t as thorough an investigation of the material this time around, Gordon’s trademarked techniques of misdirection and pretension stand out all the more. Gordon has fun building the dream world that Dark attempts to live in; getting his rocks off on the neon noir, smoldering-cherry cigarettes, and gangster elements that define this story, as well as staging lip-synched musical numbers to classic songs like “At The Hop” and “Poison Ivy.” Gordon also makes sure the audience knows every inch of Dark’s skin disease, shown in all its extreme close-up glory. The little asides, which are entertaining and interesting, add up, but the main body of the film suffers. Irritatingly, the comedy rarely works since the audience has to spend time trying to sort all the psychosis out. And a crucial plot thread, about Dark and Nicola arguing over Dark’s missing screenplay, is a muddled mess even when it’s handled directly by Gordon.
Even though Gordon ultimately fails him, it is great to see Robert Downey Jr. back on the screen. After a nearly three-year hiatus from film work due to unfortunate circumstances, Downey finds a role in “Detective” that fits him like a glove. Utilizing his gifts for comedy, pop acting, and smoky gumshoe, Downey is the only reason “Detective” is praiseworthy at all. Even under the gobs of peeling, scabby makeup, Downey is the beating heart in Gordon’s stone cold film.
I would qualify “The Singing Detective” as a disaster if only compared to the 1986 version. On its own, the picture is merely a misfire, though an persistently indulgent one.Rating: D+