SINGING DETECTIVE; THE
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Oscar® nominee Robert Downey Jr. gives the performance of his career in this acclaimed, all-star movie that weaves sly comedy, suspenseful film noir and spirited musical numbers into one of the most original productions in years. When it comes to murder, seduction and betrayal, pulp-fiction author Dan Dark (Downey) wrote the book. But now, he s living it. Languishing in a hospital room with an immobilizing condition, Dark has lost himself in the fictional world of his alter ego, a hardboiled detective and dance-band singer living in the 1950s Los Angeles. As Dark s grasp on reality continues to slip, he s placed under the care of an enigmatic psychiatrist (Oscar® winner Mel Gibson). Together, they plunge into the mystery of Dark s psyche, where everyone is suspect and danger waits at every turn. Co-starring Robin Wright Penn, Jeremy Northam, Katie Holmes, Carla Gugino and Oscar® winner Adrien Brody, The Singing Detective hits all the right notes.
If I said that Robert Downey Jr. is a singing dick then that might be a completely different review all together. Actually Downey steps into the world of Dennis Potter in this shortened adaptation of his epic miniseries. I m the dick for even implying that Downey is nothing short of excellent in the role, bad me.
Novelist Dan Dark (Robert Downey Jr.) is a sick man. He s been hospitalized with extreme psoriasis that has caused debilitating arthritis. So terrible is his disease that his hands are no more than clubs. Not a good thing for an author to be suffering from as he can t write or even use a typewriter.
His intense pain causes him to seek solace within his own mind. So we accompany him as he views a film noir starring himself as The Singing Detective, a gumshoe and nightclub singer that s involved in an investigation.
Dark s reality isn t exactly normal as characters frequently burst into song as well as looking back on his terrible childhood. His psychiatrist Dr. Gibbon (Mel Gibson, who also produced) tries to help Dark out of his darkness and back into the cold, hard light of reality.
Reality and fantasy have a habit of blending together as Dark tries to come to grips with his illness, his wife (Robin Wright), his nurse (Katie Holmes), and being haunted by his mother (Carla Gugino), all of whom have alter egos in his fantasy world.
The Singing Detective is based on the 1986 British miniseries by author Dennis Potter and starring Michael Gambon. His previous miniseries, Pennies from Heaven (1978), was adapted by Hollywood into a film that he reportedly despised. It was with this in mind that Dennis Potter wrote the screenplay for this adaptation himself and it floated around Hollywood long after his death in 1994.
Mel Gibson s Icon Productions happened upon that screenplay and finally succeeded in making the film in 2003. The problem arises that for fans of the miniseries this might seem like a Cliff s Notes version. I ve always had a soft spot for the film version of Pennies from Heaven (with a favorite Christopher Walken performance he even dances!), but I ve not watched the miniseries of Pennies.
I have watched The Singing Detective and the film seems to not have the breathing room needed. That being said, the film also has a fantastic performance by Robert Downey Jr. who excels in the role of Dan Dark. The concept of his fantasy life as a singing gumshoe and his sad reality also make an interesting contrast.
It s made even better when the two start blending together as well as the characters occasionally bursting into lip-synched musical production numbers. What s interesting is that The Singing Detective has already been on DVD before in 2004 under the Paramount label.
That version was out of print, but it now appears that Paramount is farming out some product to Legend Films so this reissue is exactly the same as that other version, but takes the Paramount logo off the front and puts the Legend logo on the disc and elsewhere.
The Singing Detective is presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) and is enhanced for 16x9 televisions. The only special feature is an interesting commentary from director Keith Gordon, who you may recognize as the star of John Carpenter s adaptation of Stephen King s Christine.
The Singing Detective is an interesting film with a great performance by Robert Downy Jr. Fans of the miniseries may prefer the greater depth of it, but I found this film a nice version of the story. --Patrick Luce of MonstersandCritics.com
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Others have detailed the plot, so I will go sparingly on the details, but the arc of the story concerns Dark, who at the film's opening is seen barking like a dog and suffering from a horrible skin infection in a hospital. This introduces the medical subcomponent; immediately thereafter the noir gangster subcomponent is introduced with the drowning of a woman in a bathtub. Get used to these rapid fire shifts in time period (much is told in flashback) and storyline; much of this is clearly fantasy, but there is frequent deliberate blurring of fantasy and reality, and if the characters and fundamental storytelling weren't so entirely off-putting it would be effective and interesting. Instead it's merely trying.
Let's recall that the title is "The Singing Detective", so the third major film styling is the cast spontaneously and inappropriately breaking into song. The first time we see this is in Dark's hospital room when the hospital staff launch into "At The Hop". What? Why? This song has no connection to the plot and just serves to justify the word "singing" in the title. This is but the first of many songs from the 1940s and 1950s that will be crooned for no reason except as a manifestation of Dark's descent into madness. The script is not very nuanced, and the filmmakers evidently decided that Downey screaming profanities passes as witty, but it's really just boring after the first few minutes. Here the f-bomb is a lazy crutch. Dark resists the help of Dr. Gibbon, and the scenes of Dark and Gibbon are the best in the film thanks to Gibson. In the major "duh" moment of the film, Gibbon concludes that Dark doesn't like women, a point made very obvious by the various relationships he has with women throughout all subplots shown. In one of the psychoanalysis scenes the most self-revelatory line of dialogue in the movie is uttered with unexpected significance: "If this was a movie, it'd be on the cutting room floor". Indeed, I don't know why all of this wasn't left there and swept into a bin by the janitor. As a bonus, watch for the world's most grating word free association psychotherapy.
Rarely have I been so perturbed with a movie, and while I'm not against having multiple intertwining storylines per se (in skilled hands it can be a very effective technique, see "Dunkirk" for example), there isn't enough interesting material here for its 108-minute running time. Sometimes picking your most interesting story and telling it is a better call (though in fairness, I wouldn't want to have seen any of these). That brings me to the biggest problem with the entire movie: there isn't a single character I care about, and in fact, Dark is so irritating it's hard not to wish ill on him. As the film ends, the plots converge as the hoods come to the hospital for Dark which is actually the only interesting intersection of storylines in the movie, but the glimmer of interest that was sparked is almost as quickly dashed by a terrible breaking of the fourth wall.
That there is some major league talent on display here is indisputable, making it more astonishing that with a great cast and tons of ability behind the camera that something this difficult to sit through was the result. The film was estimated to have cost around $9,000,000 and grossed about $336,000 in its US release. I'm frankly surprised it did that well.
The DVD includes a commentary with director Keith Gordon. I'm normally one to watch a film again to hear a cast or director commentary, even for films I didn't particularly care for. Over the years I have really enjoyed the insights I've gleaned from commentaries, and have even reflected and changed my mind to some degree about a couple of films after seeing them again with the commentary enabled. In this case I made an exception to my rule as there's absolutely no way I am ever going to watch this again. In fact I just want it out of my house. Tomorrow's trash day.
The acting is supurb; why this didn't get any critical acclaim is beyond me. Robert Downey Jr proves, yet again, that professionally no one can touch him. He is a rare class of actor that can deliver any range be it humor or tragedy. This role had to be a challenge though with the total body make up needed for Dan Dark's horrible skin condition; not to mention the emotional roller coaster the character is on. The man appears to cry real tears at one point! Kudos RDJ!! I wish The People could vote for Oscar winners and not "The Academy". There would be a lot of different winners. RDJ would have several of the gold guys on his mantelpiece if I had anything to do with it.
I don't care for the ending at all; I probably don't totally understand it yet. For a SD newbie, trying to figure out which scene is in Dan Dark's tortured mind or is for real is part of the fun of this film. I intend to see the British series as soon as I can. Maybe I can understand the ending better. Hummm......
It's not for everyone but for those willing to take a risk and actually have to think about a story rather than just watch it, oh, do try this film.
That said, I think the film can be enjoyed even by those who know nothing about its background. Yes, it's a little offbeat--a dark comedy in which the past and the present, as well as fictional worlds, collide in the mind of one physically and emotionally sick man, complete with stylized musical numbers that may seem to come from nowhere. But I thought it was quite good once I got into its spirit--funny, sad, surprising, moving, and ultimately upbeat without ever feeling forced, manipulative, or weird merely for the sake of being weird. I thought all the actors were excellent; Robert Downey Jr. as the vitriolic writer at the center of the action and Mel Gibson as the awkward therapist who tries to help him stand out especially.
I wrote this review to give people a different perspective from the single previous review, in which this version was compared to the original BBC series and came out the worse. I feel that this version is not simply a "remake" or an "update"--implying it's a cheap knock-off made to squeeze more money out of the franchise--but rather a new examination of the story by the same author in a different time and place. I think people who give it a chance without constantly comparing it to the older version will be pleasantly surprised.