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By Mark Sells | November 23, 2003

Adapted from the 1986 six-part British miniseries by the late Dennis Potter, “The Singing Detective” features a talented cast and a variety of 1950’s hop from Gene Vincent’s “In My Dreams” to The Coasters “Poison Ivy.” It’s about a detective novelist who struggles to overcome a rare skin disease and while medicated, has hallucinations about his childhood, his failed marriage, and his outlook on life. All seems bleak until he encounters a crafty psychologist, played amusingly by Mel Gibson, who like a detective himself, unravels the novelist’s personal mysteries. Sounds good, right? Well unfortunately, rather than sing, the film version struggles to find its own unique voice, has a hard time consolidating what Potter took six hours to convey, and more importantly, lacks the substance or zing to sustain a prolonged interest.
Dan Dark is a crime novelist with a rare skin disorder (psoriasis) that has infected his entire body. Already hospitalized for several months and on heavy medication, Dark spends most of his time writhing in bed, antagonizing the medical staff, and tossing out offensive barbs to anyone near him. However, when he is alone, he drifts off into a fictional world of 50’s crime noir. A manifestation of characters and situations from his published work entitled “The Singing Detective,” the dreams follow the life of his alter ego and leading character, a cynical private investigator who moonlights as a singer while attempting to solve a murder mystery. Much like Dark’s real world, everyone is perceived as the enemy. And slowly, reality begins to blur with make believe.
Because his skin condition fails to improve, his doctors order Dark into the office of the inscrutable psychiatrist, Dr. Gibbon (Gibson). Gibbon is a wily old veteran with unorthodox methods. He asserts that Dark cannot fully heal on the outside until he has fully healed on the inside. And to heal on the inside, he must resolve the issues from his past and present, many of which are alluded to in his crime novel. Belligerent and skeptical, Dark initially refutes Gibbon’s psychobabble and analytical ways. But over time, Gibbon is able to break through Dark’s tortured psyche and identify the barriers of resistance that he has built up – delusions of paranoia, repressed childhood memories, and a subtle hatred for women.
So why all the anger? Will Gibbon’s efforts succeed? Will Dark heal on the inside and then on the outside? And will Dark be able to escape his dementia and integrate back into society?
Keith Gordon has come a long way from an 80’s comedic actor to director. In fact, he will forever stay etched in my mind as the son of Rodney Dangerfield in the classic comedy, “Back to School.” I loved that movie growing up. And I guess it’s a bit of an irony that Gordon’s directorial debut was “Mother Night,” an adaptation of the Kurt Vonnegut classic. If you recall in “Back to School,” Dangerfield asks Vonnegut himself to write a book report and help his son pass an English literature class. In any case, the predominant theme in “Mother Night” and now, in Gordon’s “The Singing Detective” is that they both inevitably lose their sense of self, their identity. They unravel because of all the ambiguity. Though masterfully mixing reality with dreams, blending one generation with another, and actions with true intentions, Gordon creates thoughtful pieces but at the sacrifice of a compelling story.
“The Singing Detective” goes to great lengths to confuse its audience, running in and out of flashbacks, memories and dreams, reality, and oddly enough, musical numbers. It winds up as jumbled as Dan Dark’s dementia and by the time the film is over, you feel like the Dan Dark at the beginning of the film rather than the end. Certain scenes, such as the hoodlum’s placement in the desert, a young Dark with his mother and without his mother on the same bus ride, and the awkward musical numbers – all are as perplexing as an episode of David Lynch’s “Wild Palms.” [Gordon directed many episodes for Lynch]. I love films that make you think – in a good way. This one, however, makes you think in a bad way. If you can get past the first act, you’ll try and piece together loosely bound ideas that may be important and some that have no importance whatsoever. And that’s the frustrating part. Most of the time, free flowing concepts do not equate to entertaining, substantive drama.
The casting was the main attraction for pulling me into the theater. Robert Downey, Jr. is one of the most versatile actors of our generation despite a lingering drug addiction; Mel Gibson produced and co-starred in the film and is hilarious in appearance with huge spectacles and mannerisms befitting Mr. Magoo; Adrien Brody is fresh off his Academy winning performance in The Pianist and plays a Bugsy-like gangster; and then there’s a slew of other memorable faces like Robin Wright Penn, Katie Holmes, Jeremy Northam, and Jon Polito. It had the making of a stellar film, but it all falls apart in the dialogue department. At times, Downey, Jr. looked like Brando in “The Island of Dr. Moreau” with his face covered in white paste blurting out expletives and odd one liners.
Furthermore, the cast seemed underutilized. Rather than taking advantage of the opportunity to have the cast belt out such classic 50’s songs as “At The Hop” and “Woman Love,” Gordon has them lip sync obnoxiously. Intended for comic relief, the song and dance numbers come across as uninspired and robotic. That is, all except for the charismatic, tongue-in-cheek scene between Gibson and Downey, Jr. during their rendition of the Eddie Cochran classic, “Three Steps To Heaven.” Call me spoiled, but after Catherine Zeta Jones’ performance in Chicago, anything less just seems amateurish.
“The Singing Detective” is one of those films that is high in concept, but poor on delivery. On paper, it sounds like an interesting idea – a heavily medicated novelist must recuperate by sorting out the demons from his past and present while dealing with the hidden meaning of his fictional life. It takes a vivid imagination to relay such a story, but no audience should have to decipher between what’s relevant and irrelevant this much. Or have to sit through the torturous anguish of Dark’s ego. The dialogue is comprised of verbal darts and retorts, the boundaries between Dark’s novel and childhood memories are skewed in a way that does not move the story forward, and the film underachieves with an underutilized, yet willing cast. Oddly amusing, if this film were a novel, Kurt Vonnegut would call me a critic “who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae.”

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