Published Nov 01, 2003There's a sense, watching The Singing Detective, that you need one of two things: a road map, or a familiarity with the film's source material: a mid-'80s British mini-series written by Dennis Potter, who completed this script before his death in 1994. It stars Robert Downey Jr. as novelist Dan Dark, trapped in a hospital bed and covered entirely in serious scars as a result of severe psoriasis (a skin disease that in fact afflicted writer Potter). In a hallucinatory state, Dan Dark begins reliving both the events of his life and those of his first noir-ish novel, set in 1950s Los Angeles. In it, he is the titular detective trying to solve a mystery that, over the course of the film, gets interwoven with Dark's own life concerns in a way that muddles the narrative almost hopelessly.
By using the narrative convention of fictional flashbacks, combined with Dark's own assessments of his current pre-hospital life and his in-hospital hallucinations, even trying to decipher who's who and what's true becomes a near impossible task. Since the cast takes on different roles in different settings Robin Wright Penn plays his ex-wife trying to embezzle money for a film adaptation of his books, as well as several other roles in the novelisation flashbacks even keeping track becomes a headache. Mel Gibson is sure to get the most attention for his completely unrecognisable supporting role as an extremely geeky psychiatrist, and Downey Jr. proves himself once again the great lost potential of this or perhaps any generation, but The Singing Detective is a big, muddled mess.
One final note: the singing. Musicals are all the rage, Moulin Rouge, Chicago, blah, blah, blah. But if you're going to make a movie called The Singing Detective, and in this movie the detective is going to sing, then you should make a movie where, you know, the detective sings. I guess The Lip Syncing Detective lacks pizzazz, but the retread '50s schmaltz (including such hambone old saws as "Mr. Sandman"), as lip-synced by a non-singing cast, just comes across as pathetic. Even Woody Allen sucked it up, wrote original music and did his own singing. This Singing Detective is better off staying in bed. (Paramount)