Directed by Keith Gordon
Screenplay by Dennis Potter, based on his eight-part
Produced by Bruce Davey, Mel Gibson and Steven Haft
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Robin Wright Penn, Mel Gibson,
Jeremy Northam, Carla Gugino, Katie Holmes, Adrien Brody and Jon
(out of 4)
Potter didn’t write “The Singing Detective” with
Robert Downey Jr. in mind. When the British playwright created his
eight-part TV mini-series, thoughts of reformed heroin addicts weren’t
the main focus of dramatic tension. Yet the story of Dan Dark, a
washed-up author struggling through a nasty bout of psoriasis, closely
parallels the Hollywood actor’s own notorious battles with
substance abuse. Although not intentional, it is a fitting parallel
for a film that successfully deconstructs traditional notions of
fiction and reality—a process that ultimately leads to a reconstruction
The film, directed by Keith Gordon (who worked with Downey in “Back
to School”) takes place entirely in the mind of Dark, whose
drug-induced dementia has led to a fragmented psyche. In order to
emphasize the severity of this instability, the film itself is given
a schizophrenic treatment—three separate settings that ultimately
collide in one surreal world. In addition to these thematic backdrops
are a slew of sporadically performed, over-the-top musical interludes.
While abundant cinematic and thematic intricacies have the potential
to overload or confuse an audience, the many twists and turns are
worth following if only to discover whether there’s anything
meaningful beneath all of the absurdity.
The fantastic ride begins in film noir form—thick shadows
masking tough guys in fedoras, dames in vixen rouge. It is here
where Jeremy Northam’s character brings home a prostitute
(Carla Gugino) from a dive bar.
Their brief sexual encounter is ripe with aggression—and ulterior
motives. In lieu of a post-coital embrace, two goons (Adrien Brody
and Jon Polito, a duo blessed with the gift of slapstick) barge
in and drown Gugino in the bathtub. The next shot shows her floating
face-up in the L.A. river—another nameless hooker who was
simply at the wrong place at the wrong time. Or was she? Better
yet—who was she?
Enter Dark (now the protagonist of his own novel), a fast-talking
detective with more one-liners than Johnny Carson in his prime.
He’s slick and confident, a far cry from the author helplessly
confined to his hospital bed.
In Dark’s attempts to escape reality, he is alternately thrust
between pulp fiction and painful childhood memories. Dark’s
physical ailment is the result of psychological distress, therefore
the only way he can shed his external lesions is by facing inner
demons. It seems that his current problems stem from deeply seeded
issues with his mother. This is an old and potentially tired theme,
but Potter’s screenplay is inventive enough to carry it off
One saving grace is the way in which the principal actors move deftly
in and out of character, adopting separate identities to suit the
situation at hand. Gugino is not just a hooker, she’s also
Dark’s ill-fated mom. Northam is not only a pimp, he’s
also a slimy opportunist looking to get rich with Dark’s script—and
laid with Dark’s wife (Robin Wright Penn).
Another welcome addition to the complicated plot is Dr. Gibbon (Mel
Gibson made unrecognizable in old-age prosthetics), a psychoanalyst
bent on helping Dark locate the root of his suffering—and
thus fuse together these disjointed personalities.
Gibson is convincing as an older physician…casual, laid back—the
“cool” doctor like quirky Robin Williams in “Patch
Adams” or all of those other movies in which the latter actor
bucked the system by being goofy and wise.
But it’s Downey who steals the show. Throughout the film his
character is a volatile, sore-ridden specimen, spewing vulgarities
and formulating oddball conspiracy theories. He talks, or rather
dictates, to himself, ending each sentence with a verbal period,
question mark or end-paragraph. This behavior has an alienating
effect on Dark. Straight-faced doctors write him off as a hopeless
nut job. Others, such as Katie Holmes’ vapid nurse, are simply
too physically revolted to get close. Even his wife has run out
of patience, keeping her visits to a minimum. Only Dr. Gibbons manages
to soothe Dark into a semblance of the man he assumedly used to
be—only with a firmer grip on his identity.
“The Singing Detective” is neurotic, erotic and confused—just
crazy enough to work.