The Singing Detective

2003, Movie, R, 109 mins


Coarse and misguided, Keith Gordon's film of the late Dennis Potter's own reworking of his intricate, dyspeptic, 1986 miniseries is a failure on every level. At the core of Potter's multileveled narrative lies pulp novelist Daniel Dark (Robert Downey Jr.) — Philip Marlow in the original — and "lie" is the word. Hospitalized with virulent psoriatic arthropathy that's blistered his skin and swollen his joints to immobility, the misanthropic Dark lashes out at the world with the only weapon at his command — bilious, cutting, hateful words. He rejects mind-numbing tranquilizers, so his restless mind, unmoored from any reality beyond the intersection of pain and helplessness, roams freely between the present, the guilt-ridden past that twisted his spirit and the fiction in which Dark invested his soul without getting back an ounce of satisfaction, creative or financial. Dark's raging consciousness constantly reworks his memories as fiction, casting him as the protagonist of his own novel "The Singing Detective," about a warbling gumshoe up to his golden throat in treacherous dames, duplicitous hoods and smart-mouthed gunsels. As Dark reluctantly explores his formative traumas in the present day with a hospital psychiatrist (Mel Gibson, all but unrecognizable in a bald cap), he rewrites them in his head as scenes from a noir movie version of "The Singing Detective" punctuated with song-and-dance sequences that recall glossy, Technicolor musicals. He also fantasizes that his estranged and sorely put-upon wife, Nicola (Robin Wright Penn), is conspiring with a sleazy sharpster (Jeremy Northam) to steal the "Singing Detective" movie rights, and catches occasional glimpses of his wise-cracking hoods (Adrien Brody and Jon Polito, a walking fat-and-skinny gag) skulking around the hospital corridors. Potter's fictions-within-fictions were brilliantly unsettling in the original, English long form, but this Americanized version (again, Potter's doing, not Gordon's) feels rushed and painfully obvious at just under two hours. Updating the music from 1940s standards to '50s pop tunes profoundly unsettles the film's tone; the change brings the music's chronology in line with the updated present-day sequences, which take place in the '90s rather than the '80s, but the sunny, post-war popular music of the American 1950s resonates very differently from the mainstream tunes of WWII-era England. The mismatch between the film's "Singing Detective" fantasy sequences and the atmosphere generated by "At the Hop" and "Mr. Sandman" is jarring, undercutting the seething gloom that infects both the despairing crime films of the '40s and '50s and Marlow/Dark's turbulent psyche. Bottom line: Rent the original. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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