Written by Dennis Potter and directed by Keith Gordon, “The Singing Detective” is an adaption of the television mini-series of the same name in the late 1980’s. This was Robert Downey Jr’s initial starring role after his drug rehab issues in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. In fact Mel Gibson, who also stars in this film, helped to finance Downey’s involvement with “The Singing Detective” which follows Downey as Dan Dark, a pulp fiction author with a severe case of psoriatic arthropathy, a crippling disease of the skin and bones. During this latest flare-up of his disease Dark lays in his hospital bed in crippling pain dashing out mean spirited insults as fast as he can unleash them. He’s not in a good place physically, mentally, or emotionally. He frequently has feverish daydreams and hallucinations wherein his mind mixes reality with plot points and characters from his first novel, The Singing Detective. He has lost his anchor to his own past and sometimes misrepresents his past as one involving characters of his own creation, and other more recent events as a mixture of casting himself in the lead role of his story as a gumshoe detective that doubles as the lead singer of a 1940’s styled swing band.
It’s definitely a strange combination of storylines and ideas, but in an odd and hallucinatory way, it kinda works. Dark can go from listening to his doctors discuss his illness and various procedures to imagining the various health experts bursting into song and dance as he’s whisked away on his wheeled bed through a heavily choreographed musical number ripped right from Hollywood’s golden age. His imagination knows no bounds though and his mind can bounce from overly sexualized dance numbers to himself dancing and singing onstage to a shootout between himself and the two criminal henchmen portrayed comedically and threateningly by Adrien Brody and Jon Polito. The weight of the story comes into play once Mel Gibson’s Dr. Gibbon is introduced, a psychiatrist known to play to the eccentricities of his patients. It is through his eventual work with Dr. Gibbon that Dark realizes that the inciting event of his childhood was witnessing his mother have sex with his father’s business partner, forever forging a deep mistrust and fervent paranoia of love and sexual connection.
Dark’s main interests lie in his assumption that his ex-wife Nicola, played by the always brilliant Robin Wright, has had affairs with a man that Dark imagines as looking exactly like his father’s cheating business partner (Some actors play different roles throughout the film). She visits Dark in the hospital to bring up the news that his old screenplay adaption for The Singing Detective has attracted attention from a producer in Hollywood, but Dark only assumes the worst at first, she’s clearly looking for information from him so that she might steal his work and reap the dividends. Slowly, and after much prodding, Dark begins to lessen the sting of his verbal venom and ease into healing from the work with Dr. Gibbons. His body begins to gain strength and his lesions begin to recede. Not before his hallucinations all begin to combine and further warp his own interpretation of reality though. This film is an interesting exercise in telling a story through the perception of one character as his imagination informs his world and therefore shapes how he interacts with the people in the real world around him. Robert Downey Jr. steals the show for the most part, his cantankerous spirit here is most likely pulling from some of his own self discovery through rehab, lashing out at first before coming to peace in understanding himself and the process of healing. Though that’s pure speculation on my part. Mel Gibson hides in plain sight here as Dr. Gibbons in heavy make-up with a calm and guiding demeanor, differentiating this performance from most of his previous work.
There can be some painfully apparent lip-syncing for the musical numbers, but again, as most of the film is from Dark’s paranoid and warped perspective I can give that aspect some slack as oddities play into a lot of the scenes. Part homage to Noir crime films, part musical embracing a pastiche of classic Americana, and part self discovery through medical rehabilitation, “The Singing Detective” can be an array of jumbling tones and ideas at times, but shown through the prism of our wounded author Dan Dark, we get a unique if somewhat underwhelming film that’s worth a watch at the very least.
Final Score: 1 vocal gumshoe and 1 bedridden writer