Monday, December 14, 2009

A Frank Review of "The Singing Detective" (2003)

The Short Version? Warbling dick.
What Is It? Musical Drama.
Who Is In It? Iron Man, the Princess Pride, Martin Riggs, Joey Potter, Sally Jupiter, and more.
Should I See It? Maybe.

Dan Dark is a bad mystery writer and an ill-tempered patient hospitalized with crippling psoriatic arthropathy. Wracked with pain, Dark's mind drifts constantly; to his pulp detective fictions, his traumatic childhood, his wretched relationships with women, and an intermingling of same, often accompanied by music.

Robert Downey Jr. is his usual awesome self in the lead, necessary for making his belligerent paranoiac character remotely sympathetic, even while buried under latex casts of mottled skin. Robin Wright Penn struggles for the same empathy as Dark's much abused wife. Mel Gibson is virtually unrecognizable as Dark's wily psychiatrist, also immersed in latex, and proving he can successfully hide his Australian accent if he really tries. Carla Gugino once again plays a sexpot trafficking in rough trade, a career specialty. Alfre Woodard, Adrien Brody, Jeremy Northam, Saul Rubinek, Jon Polito and Katie Holmes lend stable if broad support, typically also playing off their familiar roles.

The Singing Detective is the American film version of a well-regarded BBC radio drama and mini-series that I'm completely unfamiliar with. Apparently, writer Dennis Potter took liberties with his own material for the translation, but everyone got pissed off and dismissed it as another cross-Atlantic Yankee fuck-up. It's actually a pretty decent, entirely watchable little flick with eccentricities likely to turn off a good many potential viewers. If you're into '40s film noir crime stories, that aspect is given short shrift in favor of psychobabble and metatext. If you enjoy the dark comedy, you'll be sitting through a lot of angsty medical and marriage drama. Even as an actors' showpiece, and there are some surprising performances here, the lip-synched musical numbers of '50s pop hits will turn you off. Get through all that, and there's still seriously coarse language and sexual situations, designed to antagonize and unnerve rather than amused and titillate. The movie is a hot mess, too convoluted to gloss over so much detail, and too intimate to play out over such a sprawling scape. Still, despite it all, it will entertain you if you let it.


  • Commentary by Director Keith Gordon: Fun fact- He co-starred with Downey Jr. as Rodney Dangerfield's son in Back to School. Gordon seemed devoted to the integrity of Potter's vision, while constantly using Potter's adaptation license to apologize for offending purists to the original series. It's a passionate track from a director with plenty to say about his production, including much needed kind words for producer Gibson.

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