SINGING DETECTIVE, THE
Almost completely immobile with acute psoriasis, his body a mess of sores and scabs, struggling novelist Dan Dark (Robert Downey jnr) lies deeply disturbed, angry and aggressive in a hospital bed. His hallucinations throw him into the midst of a strange noir thriller, in which his wife (Robin Wright Penn) is cheating on him with a coldhearted figure from Dan’s childhood (Jeremy Northam), and two strange gangsters (Adrien Brody, Jon Polito) are after him. To make things worse, his doctors all seem quite mad, breaking into song while circling his bed. Assigned to goggle eyed Dr Gibbon (Mel Gibson), Dan is forced to confront his demons.
Review by Louise Keller:
The Singing Detective is a bizarre trip, combining its noir thriller and musical fantasy elements with a reality that becomes confused with both time and fiction. An ambitious project that originated with the popular 80s Dennis Potter television series, its creator has modified the concept for the big screen, replacing the original English setting to its American one, but keeping the basic themes intact. There’s a fine line between the pathos and humour of the protagonist.
Entertaining, amusing, confusing and occasionally painfully tragic, we are fascinated most of the time, largely due to Robert Downey Jnr’s brilliant portrayal of the troubled bed-ridden author, who is so convincing in every facet of his multi-roles, that we are drawn to him like a magnet. From a hysterical madman in denial to suave crooner and vulnerable little boy lost, Downey Jnr gives an edgy, unpredictable performance of the highest order.
I guarantee you will have to look twice to recognise Mel Gibson as the balding, bespectacled hunched psychoanalyst whose magnified eyes make him look a little like Mr Magoo. Gibson is terrific, and the scenes between his Dr Gibbons and Dan Dark sit on a knife’s edge. But all the cast is exceptional, with Robin Wright-Penn as Dark’s complex wife, Jeremy Northam’s enigmatically playful dark stranger, Katie Holmes’ sweet angelic nurse plus Adrien Brody and Jon Polito as the two gangsters who pop up at the most unexpected times.
It’s a crazy, mixed up world that burns within the mind of Dan Dark, as he is unceremoniously stuck in a hospital bed, a prisoner inside his own skin. Trapped in his own nightmares, Dark swims upstream into his tormented past and gets lost in a world where mysterious characters in suede hats smoke their cigarettes and draw guns in the shadows. Oh yes, and there’s also a dame – there’s always a dame. It’s a world filled with danger, uncertainty, lust and passion.
But there’s relief in the form of musical fantasy, when Dark escapes in a heavenly world in which characters from all his realities join him in song and dance. A scene in which a group of solemn doctors and nurses peering at Dark around his hospital bed suddenly transform into their underwear as they explode into a delightful and amusing rendition of Mr Sandman. Then there’s the highly memorable scene when Katie Holmes’ Nurse Mills utters those words ‘I’m going to have to lift your penis to grease all around it,’ which sets Dark into a fantasy with a pink Cadillac.
While the focus of the film becomes a little diluted at times, there’s much that is enjoyable as we get sucked into this truly offbeat reality where anything goes. The music is great and in the closing credits, there’s a special significance as we hear Downey Jnr’s own stirring musical rendition of ‘It’s Only Make Believe’.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
The single most important decision in making the film of The Singing Detective was the choice of Robert Downey jnr as Dan Dark, his complex, edgy, nerves-exposed kinda style perfectly suited to playing the bedridden, paranoid, hallucinating novelist, who seems to hang in the terrifying limbo between reality and delusion for much of the film.
Downey’s endless bits of business, his ability to emote with a single eyelash, and his equally useful ability to instil stillness into chaos, serve him and the film admirably. He adds layers that even the writers can’t have dreamt of. The Singing Detective needs this performance, because it is not only central to the film’s plot, but because he’s also central to all the characters in the film, and their actions. They are because of him.
If you’re familiar with the 80s British tv series, you will not be surprised at the film’s unpredictably wild nature, its bizarre segues from hospital bed to a rock n’ roll stage, or to one of several seriously noir scenarios with two pulp fiction gangsters (Adrien Brody, Jon Polito) who are in pursuit of our hero. And our hero is not sure whether he is lying in a bed looking like a human pizza from extreme psoriasis, or the stereotypical private eye with a trilby slouching on his head. The swings from one to the other might give you slackjaw, but it’ll keep your endorphins pumping – or your tearducts.
Slamming into walls of drama and ricocheting back into humour, The Singing Detective also scores a handful of musical numbers that combine fantasy and humour with nostalgia. The dramatic resolution, which sees Dan Dark’s horrific psoriasis begin to clear up as he – reluctantly at first - unburdens himself of his traumatised childhood before the very spectacle-enlarged eyes of Dr Gibbon (Mel Gibson), makes the payoff worthwhile. If you feel you need a movie that takes you by the throat and shakes up your expectations a bit, this will do very nicely, I promise.
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KEITH GORDON INTERVIEW
SINGING DETECTIVE, THE (MA)
CAST: Robert Downey Jr., Robin Wright Penn, Mel Gibson, Jeremy Northam, Katie Holmes, Adrien Brody, Jon Polito, Carla Gugino, Saul Rubinek, Alfre Woodard
PRODUCER: Bruce Davey, Mel Gibson, Steven Haft
DIRECTOR: Keith Gordon
SCRIPT: Dennis Potter
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Tom Richmond
EDITOR: Jeff Wishengrad
MUSIC: Michael Carey Schneider
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Patricia Norris
RUNNING TIME: 109 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Icon
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: July 8, 2004
VIDEO DISTRIBUTOR: Warner Home Video
VIDEO RELEASE: October 20, 2004