Ironically, "The Singing Detective" probably would have been better without the awkwardly integrated songs that signal frequent shifts into fantasy for the picture's acrimonious anti-hero -- a second-rate pulp novelist hospitalized with literally crippling, full-body psoriasis that serves as a metaphor for his rampaging inner demons.
As an acerbically droll psychological drama about the writer's noir-fiction imagination slowly seeping into his tormented reality, this new adaptation of the highly acclaimed 1986 BBC miniseries (both were written by the late Dennis Potter) has many layers of mesmerizing Freudian substance, brought vividly to life by Robert Downey, Jr's fearlessly hostile but slowly warming performance.
Playing Dan Dark -- a bitter soul trapped in a grotesquely scabby, arthritic body -- Downey seethes with such animosity toward the whole world that when his doctors break into a low-budget production number lip-sync of "At the Hop" or his ointment-applying nurse (Katie Holmes) coos "Mr. Sandman" in a sexual daydream sequence, the film overshoots its intended farce because such silliness is so out of character for a man this bitter and full of bile.
That said, if you grin and bear the songs as wacky intermissions from the film's deeper themes, the balance of "The Singing Detective" is an almost hypnotic excursion into the fevered mind and angry heart that hide a wounded soul.
As Dark undergoes treatment from the hospital's oddball shrink (Mel Gibson, remarkably unrecognizable as a balding, bespectacled nebbish), who provokes him with intentionally upbeat quackiness, the reluctant patient slowly begins to emerge physically and psychologically from the shackles of his condition -- or so it seems.
At the same time inside his fevered mind, a whole noir world is taking shape in which Dark is a wiseacre gumshoe (who moonlights as a lounge crooner) embroiled in a convoluted dime-novel mystery. In this shadowy, fragmentary realm, two zoot-suited dim-bulb thugs (Jon Polito and Oscar-winner Adrien Brody) are on his tail as he tries to shake down a smarmy hood (the under-appreciated Jeremy Northam) who employs hookers to steal atomic secrets from scientists.
Directed by the intrepidly atypical Keith Gordon, who has a penchant for psyche-driven stories in which things are often not what they appear ("A Midnight Clear," "Mother Night," "Waking the Dead"), the film depicts its fiction and reality as two unfixed points on a sliding scale of self-consciousness. While the noir story solidifies from primordial bare-stage sets into conceptual projected backdrops then into practical locations, Dark's hospital room becomes subtly more surreal and fallacious as the plot congeals.
Sepia-toned memories of Dark's emotionally scarring childhood with an impoverished mom (the enticing Carla Gugino, now on ABC's "Karen Sisco") who began turning tricks to pay rent serve as stimulus for parts of the detective fantasy (where Gugino turns up again as a sexy doomed informant), which in turn fuels real-world paranoid delusions about being double-crossed by his sympathetic wife (Robin Wright Penn), who then becomes a model for the noir delusion's femme fatale.
While Gordon's grip on all this mutability feels a little tenuous at times, Downey's distinctive, malicious yet sympathetic portrayal of Dark's imprisonment in his own body is a solid mooring on which the director can confidently anchor the story's idiosyncrasie and the complimentary performances of his sublime supporting cast.
The actor's take on Dark's private-dick alter ego who cultivates a weird, fateful sense of self-awareness is equally fine-tuned. A tongue-in-cheek and intentionally two-dimensional amalgam of Bogart, Cagney, Robinson and Mitchum, he's the kind of guy who answers the question "How did you know there was a dame?" by saying "There's always a dame" out of the corner of his mouth while lighting a cigarette.
Although the screenplay was written by Potter, this "Singing Detective" makes curious superficial alterations from its TV inspiration, like the name of the main character (in the series he's ironically called Phillip Marlowe) and the fact that his fantasies now take place in the 1950s instead of the 1930s, which makes the problematic music feel even more incongruous (upbeat sock-hop ditties in film noir?).
But while some may read miscarriage into this film's discombobulation, deliberately conspicuous production design and sometimes intentional provocation (even I found a couple scenes too coarse), if you look past these facades (which are really Dan Dark's concoctions, not the film's), there's astute, cerebral cinema with a wicked sense of humor lurking in "The Singing Detective" for those who want to find it.