The Singing Detective

Robin Clifford 
The Singing Detective
Laura Clifford 

Daniel Dark (Robert Downey Jr.) writes pulp detective novels and suffers from an immobilizing skin condition called psoriatic arthropathy. The latest and worst flair up of the debilitating disease lands the writer in the hospital in excruciating pain, covered head to toes with dry, scaly skin. The pain is so bad that he begins to hallucinate as the doctors and nurses attending him break out in song and dance to the 50’s pop tune, “At the Hop.” He also imagines a screenplay in his head with Dan as the hard-boiled private eye called “The Singing Detective.”

In 1984, the BBC produced the six-part television series, “The Singing Detective,” by Dennis Potter, and it became a big hit in Britain, with a hardcore cult following in the US. Potter re-imagined his tale about the suffering scribe and wrote a feature length screenplay of his original work a couple of years before his death in 1994. Since then, the script has remained in limbo while the movie moguls in Hollywood tried to figure out how to make a big budget blockbuster version of the work. Then, Mel Gibson’s production company acquired the rights to the screenplay, brought on board helmer Keith Gordon and Mel’s old friend Robert Downey Jr. in the title role. The result is a quirky film that has drama, intrigue, lip-synched tunes from the 50’s, the look of cheesy B-movies, hard-boiled gumshoes, sex, murder, humor – you name it and “The Singing Detective” probably has it.

This is one of the problems I had with “The Singing Detective.” There is too much going on to allow it to anchor firmly anywhere. The main story, about Dan Dark’s battle with his long-time skin disease is interrupted frequently with his hallucinations, reminiscences of his troubled childhood and imagining himself as a tough private dick on a murder case. Dogging the lightheaded patient, in his mind and his screenplay, are a pair of goofy gunsels played with good humor by Adrien Brody and Jon Polito. Also on the hospital scene is Dan’s ex-wife, Nicola, who he believes sleeps around and is trying to steal the screenplay about a gumshoe who solves crimes and moonlights as a singer in a nightclub. This makes for some amusing interludes as Downey and the rest lip-synch and dance to such 50’s pop tunes as “Poison Ivy” and Conway Twitty’s “It’s Only Make Believe,” among others.

Robert Downey Jr. is in good form here – a trend I hope continues for the actor and well-known substance abuser – and does a decent job giving dimension to his bed ridden character. He does a fine job in making you feel his pain and suffering caused by his condition. The supporting cast appears to have a good time with their caricature characters. Mel Gibson gets some mileage out of his quirky psychiatrist character, Dr. Gibbons. Robin Wright-Penn gives a mature perf as Dan’s ex and Katie Holmes is sweet as the pretty nurse assigned to care for Dan and lubricate his tortured flesh – even, in one funny/sad scene, his privates. Jeremy Northam puts a sleazy spin on his ne’er-do-well cad from Dan’s childhood and in his screenplay. Also on board are Saul Rubinek, Carla Gugino and Alfre Woodard.

It would be interesting to compare the series, considered to be a masterpiece, to the new envisioning of Dan Dark’s plight. It makes me wonder what was exorcised from the original. I’m not familiar with the original BBC series and the filmmakers stress that Dennis Potter claimed that his movie adaptation is a fully realized effort, not just a truncation of the TV shows. But, the big screen version seems rushed as they try to pack their ten pounds of sugar into a five-pound bag.   

I give it a C+.

Laura also gives "The Singing Detective a C+

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