The Singing Detective
April 6, 2002
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Robin Wright Penn, Mel Gibson, Jeremy Northam, Katie Holmes, Adrien Brody, Jon Polito, Carla Gugino, Saul Rubinek, Alfre Woodard, Amy Aquino, David Dorfman, Eddie Jones, Lily Knight, Clyde Kusatsu, ,
For years, Keith Gordon has been quietly building up an impressive career as a director. He initially made his mark as an actor in some of Brian De Palma’s early work. Eventually, Gordon got tired of starring mindless fluff like Back to School (1986) and used his industry connections and experience to become a filmmaker. Following in the footsteps of his cinematic idol, Stanley Kubrick, Gordon’s films are all literary adaptations. His latest effort, The Singing Detective (2003), is Gordon’s interpretation of Dennis Potter’s groundbreaking British TV mini-series of the same name.
Dan Dark (Downey Jr.) is a writer who suffers from a severe case of psoriasis that covers his entire body with lesions. He’s confined to a hospital bed as he undergoes treatment, both physically and emotionally with the help of his psychiatrist (Gibson). The pain causes him to hallucinate passages from his crime fiction and flashbacks to his troubled childhood. All three “realities” blur together mirroring Dark’s troubled mind.
Robert Downey Jr. proves yet again that he is a fearless, adventurous actor who isn’t afraid to play an unlikable character. The bed-ridden Dark is a bitter, aggressive man who spews venomous hatred at his doctors and nurses. Downey then transforms into the suave detective of his pulp fiction fantasy world who isn’t above breaking into a ’50 doo-wop song or trying to evade two bumbling gangsters (Brody and Polito).
Gordon, along with his long-time cinematographer, Tom Richmond, creates Dark’s film noir world through stylized lighting, surreal colours and, at one point, even employing rear screen projection for a wonderful retro effect. Gordon also segues effortless into the film’s many musical numbers where Dark’s doctors and nurses (transformed into pin-up glamour models) dance with Dark who has become a handsome singer.
The Singing Detective is an adventurous film that refuses to spell things out for the audience. It jumps right in from the start with no explanation as to what is going on, forcing the audience to either accept it and keep going or reject it and tune out. It is, at times, an abstract, impenetrable film because it is trying to replicate Dark’s fractured stream-of-consciousness.
Director Keith Gordon contributes an enthusiastic audio commentary for the movie. He talks at length about the look of the film, in particular, what he describes as “the hyper noir” appearance of Dark’s fantasy world. He was able to assemble his impressive cast because of Dennis Potter’s stylish screenplay and the chance to work with Robert Downey Jr. Gordon is quite intelligent and has an engaging voice, offering fascinating observations. The filmmaker justifies and examines the more abstract elements of his film, making it essential listening for anyone who felt it unintelligible or weird for no reason.
Like Alan Rudolph’s adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions (1999), The Singing Detective is a challenging film with a star-studded cast. Both films were not well-received by critics and audiences because many felt that the either film did not live up to their legendary sources. Gordon’s film is a flawed work. It isn’t always successful in condensing and translating a six-hour mini-series into a feature film. The Singing Detective is a bold attempt from an underrated filmmaker and a good addition to Gordon’s already eclectic body of work.