‘The Singing Detective’ should have stayed in the shower
Aspen Times Staff Writer
“The Singing Detective” is a muddled mess of a movie. The film, directed by Keith Gordon and starring Robert Downey Jr. jumps eras (1930s to 1950s to present day), genres (faux musical, detective noir, psychological drama) and moods (silly, sappy, sexy, scary) so frequently that I am forced to believe there is a strategy behind the incoherence.
It’s hard to work up an intense dislike for a film that you can’t quite pin down. A movie with a straightforward plot and consistent style that is simply bad is so much easier to loath. But with “The Singing Detective,” loathing is not such an easy matter. Once you’ve started developing a distaste for one aspect of the film ” say, Downey as a misanthropic writer hospitalized with a disfiguring skin disease ” it lurches to another equally unappealing setting ” Downey in the role of a Marlowe-type ’50s detective, who for reasons unclear doubles as a suave lounge singer.
After a spell of this sort of leaping, “The Singing Detective” is not all that difficult to follow. (Whether filmgoers will make it to the point where coherence sinks in, though, is questionable.)
Downey is Dan Dark, a crime novelist whose debilitating case of psoriatic arthropathy has set him on a mission to make those around him as miserable as he is. As Dark harasses the hospital staff ” including nurses played by Katie Holmes and Alfre Woodard ” he conjures his latest work in his head. Maybe it’s from boredom, or possibly it’s a low-grade hallucination.
In his story, Dark depicts himself as a tough-talking detective lifted straight out of ’50s filmdom; there are even not-so-subtle references to “The Maltese Falcon.” In this incarnation, Dark is getting in the face of Mark Binney (Jeremy Northam), a sleaze who has picked up a hooker and had her murdered. (In a faint backstory, we are informed that Binney uses hookers to extort info from atomic scientists, and subsequently wastes the women.) Like Dark, Binney leads a double life as a character: He is also the former business partner, in an auto service station in the middle of the California desert, who had a long-ago affair with Dark’s mother (Carla Gugino). Is it necessary to add that the child Dark witnessed this sordid episode?
Dark’s imagined story is further convoluted. Two thugs affiliated with Binney ” or are they feds? even they themselves wonder aloud about the confusion ” played by Adrien Brody and Jon Polito wander in and out of the film trying to gun down Dark. In one of the more comic scenes, the two even time-travel into the present-day hospital story. They are searching for Dark, the writer, trying to find out exactly what he has in mind for them.
In a final twist to Dark’s crime yarn, his detective occasionally finds himself on the stage of dark nightclubs, singing swing tunes.
Wait, there’s more to the present-day story. Dark has a real wife (Robin Wright Penn), who is conspiring with Binney ” yep, him again ” to steal an old screenplay that might actually be worth something. And Dark is also butting heads with Dr. Gibbon (an unrecognizable Mel Gibson), the hospital’s slightly sadistic psychiatrist charged with getting into Dark’s head.
Amid this mess, Dark confronts his many demons: his distant father and his philandering mother; his shortcomings as a writer; his relationship with his wife. With the help of Dr. Gibbon, Dark begins to see himself more clearly and, as he does, his psoriasis fades and his mood mellows.
But none of it rings with a bit of truth. As complex as the narrative is, that’s how simplistic Dark’s transformation is. We don’t buy it, and maybe we aren’t expected to. But what this film does expect us to see is a mystery.
I wasn’t being facetious in saying that “The Singing Detective” is a hard movie to hate. The cast, for one, is memorable, and the acting is quite good. One has to be impressed by how much effort has been crammed into such a mediocre product.
And in the end, should you make it that far, all the strands and pieces add up to something. Director Gordon, who has previously handled such complex material as “Waking the Dead,” another time-leaping story, and the Kurt Vonnegut adaptation “Mother Night,” is too ambitious a talent to make a film that adds up to nothing. But getting there is not an enjoyable journey.
Before this film, “The Singing Detective” had an existence as a 1980s six-part British miniseries, and it is reputedly a classic. But something has been badly lost in translation.
“The Singing Detective” shows at the Wheeler Opera House Saturday through Monday, Nov. 22-24.
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