Two years before his death in 1994, writer Dennis Potter completed a screenplay inspired by his celebrated 1984 six-part BBC series, "The Singing Detective," which he said he had "totally rethought."
Would that director Keith Gordon and his associates had done more rethinking before bringing Potter's script to the screen. As problematic as it is ambitious, it stars Robert Downey Jr. in a boldly theatrical portrayal that represents a personal career high watermark and features Mel Gibson in a supporting character role that is such an effective stretch that he is virtually unrecognizable.
Even though Downey and Gibson rise to their challenging roles and have solid support, this "Singing Detective" is too flat and academic to come alive. The film's lack of dimension tends to render much of it banal, and Downey's lengthy harangues, as beautifully wrought as they are, are overly literary, which serves to make this intricate film seem all the more contrived.
In the words of Downey's Dan Dark, he looks like a pizza. A none-too-successful novelist, he is in the throes of an attack of psoriasis so severe that no area of his body is free of scaliness and sores, leaving him a virtual paralytic confined to a hospital bed. (The time, by the way, is 1992.) Refusing all tranquilizers, he lapses into paranoid ravings into which memories of his traumatic childhood collide with the plot of his first novel, "The Singing Detective," which he begins to envision as a film. He in fact adapted it for the screen long ago, and now he believes his wife and an imagined lover are trying to steal it. To say the least, all this makes Dark volcanically unpleasant.
His crime novel, set in the '50s, comes alive in his fevered imagination as a film noir in which he casts himself in the title role as a tough Mickey Spillane-type private eye tracking a villain (Jeremy Northam) who lines up prostitutes to extract atomic secrets from scientists only to have the women offed by a pair of stock thickheaded thugs (Adrien Brody and Jon Polito).
That the private eye is also a pop singer allows for a slew of lip-synced '50s standards, which apparently are supposed to have given Dark a misleading view of romance in his formative years but which mainly strike a note of absurdity that is no more amusing than the trite fantasy film noir within the film.
Dark seems to suffer a classic Madonna-whore complex about women, and the nerdy-looking yet persistent psychiatrist (Gibson) attempts to persuade Dark that his psoriasis attacks are psychosomatic in origin.
For all the amazing lengths Downey and Gibson go to, the two actors seem to exist in a vacuum, for this stiff film is virtually devoid of a sense of texture, flow or wit. Since there's no evidence that Dark intended his "Singing Detective" novel to be pastiche or satire, he comes across as a decidedly less than inspired writer. Indeed, the irony of this high-risk picture is that its greatest interest lies in the distinct possibility that it's not his conflicted feelings toward women that are driving Dan Dark nuts but his fear that his intellectual fervor far outstrips his talent.
'The Singing Detective'
MPAA rating: R, for strong sexual content, language and some violence
Times guidelines: Very strong adult dialogue and complex themes; unsuitable for children
Robert Downey Jr. ... Dan Dark
Robin Wright Penn ... Nicola/Nina/Blond
Mel Gibson ... Dr. Gibbon
Jeremy Northam ... Mark Binney
Katie Holmes ... Nurse Mills
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