The Singing Detective Movie Review
To get away from the misery of his day-to-day existence, Dark retreats into a 1950s film noir fantasy world straight from one of his books, where he's a handsome band singer who moonlights as a gumshoe. In the fantasy, he gets tangled up in a plot revolving around a dead blonde dame, the sinister Mark Binney (Jeremy Northam) who hires Dark to investigate her murder, and a couple of palookas in sharp suits (Adrien Brody and Jon Polito) who keep trying to bump Dark off. Unfortunately, the fantasy starts getting mixed up into Dark's real life - Chandler-esque gangsters showing up at his bedside, and hospital staff bursting into renditions of doo-wop hits that Dark's alter ego would have sung in an L.A. nightclub - and he has trouble keeping them separate.
The Singing Detective was written by the late, great Dennis Potter (who also had psoriatic arthropathy), and is based on his landmark British miniseries from the mid-1980s, usually cited as one of the hallmarks of television history. Having not seen the original, it's difficult to say whether or not it was the kind of thing that could have been boiled down into a two-hour feature, but the evidence on screen suggests that it shouldn't have been.
This is a film that needs to sprawl, but it has the feeling of a greatest hits compilation. The beginning is promising, as we switch with hammerblow urgency from Dark's gumshoe dream to his horrendous reality - Downey's mangled face frequently shoved right into the camera, practically daring viewers to flinch. Downey gives one of his better performances here, effortlessly articulating the hopeless rage of his character, who veers from self-pity to sarcastic fury, at one point crying and murmuring that even his tears burn his wounded skin. He even plays the gumshoe Dark pretty effectively, spitting the Bogey-esque lines out of the side of his mouth with tommy gun speed.
There's obviously a mystery to unravel here, as different themes pop up in the reality/fantasy melange. Dark starts flashing back to his early childhood spent in a tumbledown desert gas station, where he saw his mother consummate an affair with another man. Her face starts showing up in the gumshoe story, along with the man she was cheating with, also played by Northam. But the main themes - which seem quite simplistic in a Freudian way in this truncated fashion - are figured out far too easily by Dark's new psychoanalyst, Dr. Gibbon (an unrecognizable Mel Gibson sporting a monstrously bald head and bad glasses), who is cut out of the story just when he seems about to become its linchpin.
Frustrating as well are Brody and Polito, a hilarious pair of thickheaded hoods who seem to have jumped right out of Miller's Crossing. They are given most of the film's best lines in their few scenes but are then stranded in a Rosencrantz & Guildenstern-type scenario that is never allowed to build any momentum.
Stylistically, the film is a mess, it looks and sounds (with the exception of the desert childhood scenes) like it was shot on one soundstage in about a week with a single 16mm camera and no sound guy. Downey does his best to keep the film's center from flying apart, but it doesn't work and in the end, director Keith Gordon (Waking the Dead, A Midnight Clear) doesn't seem to know how to patch all the film's wildly incongruous elements together.
Given a bigger budget, another hour of screen time to get everything handled property, or at least a director more at home with both hard-boiled drama and music, The Singing Detective could have been one of the best, most challenging movies of the year, instead of the seldomly successful oddball that it is.
Gordon offers a commentary track on the DVD.