say your piece

158 20 NOVEMBER 2003
Sex, Drugs, Psoriasis and Psychosis:
Mixing Genres with 'The Singing Detective'
By Jamie Gadette

“The Singing Detective”
Paramount Classics
Directed by Keith Gordon
Screenplay by Dennis Potter, based on his eight-part television mini-series
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 Polito
Rated R
(out of 4)

Dennis 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 of self.

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 without cliché.

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.

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