Robert Downey Jr. as Dan Dark
Robin Wright Penn as Nicola/Nina/Blonde
Mel Gibson as Dr. Gibbon
Jeremy Northam as Mark Binney
Katie Holmes as Nurse Mills
Adrien Brody as First Hood
Jon Polito as Second Hood
Carla Gugino as Betty Dark/Hooker
Saul Rubinek as Skin Specialist
Alfre Woodard as Chief of Staff
Amy Aquino as Nurse Nozhki
David Dorfman as Young Dan Dark
Eddie Jones as Moonglow Bartender
Dan Dark is a 50s gumshoe detective, taking on cases and fighting gangsters, when he’s not on stage belting out rock ‘n’ roll tunes. Dan Dark is the writer of hardboiled detective stories, losing his mind to paranoid delusions as his body deteriorates in the hospital. Dan Dark is a young boy, who one day sees his mother having sex with his father’s business partner, creating intense trauma in the sensitive youth when they’re forced to leave.
How do all of these characters tie together? That is the real secret behind the movie based on Dennis Potter’s BBC mini-series of the same name, as it mixes noir, comedy and 50s rock music to get into the head of a very complex character, as played by Robert Downey Jr.
The screenplay for The Singing Detective was one of the final works of writer Dennis Hopper’s life, and it’s pretty obvious that the Dan Dark character is supposed to be him. While the original work was as dark and cynical as his life, Hopper decided to introduce a few elements of humor and levity into the big screen version, represented by slapstick comedy, wry sarcasm and of all things, lip-synced 50s rock musical numbers that could have been taken directly out of The Rocky Horror Picture Show or Little Shop of Horrors. The mixture of drama, comedy and music puts The Singing Detective firmly in the realms of some of the Coen Brothers’ quirkier works, mixed with a bit of Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark.
Robert Downey’s performance – his first movie appearance since getting out of prison – is the driving force for the movie, and it is absolutely stunning. The character of Dan Dark is one full of depth and dimension, and Downey effortlessly pulls off every aspect of this complex role, from the bitter asshole to the smooth-talking gumshoe to the paranoid lunatic. It’s an amusing role, and Downey delivers the cynical lines from Potter’s amazing script with the timing and dry wit of William S. Burroughs.
On top of that, Downey’s transformation over the course of the film is nothing short of amazing. First shown with a body covered with hideous lesions and sores, he’s barely coherent as he babbles and rages at the hospital’s staff. The make-up job is so gruesome in its realism, that it’s hard to watch him sometimes, but Downey uses his abundant acting talents to make his state seem even more painful. Over the course of the movie, his personality changes as his body begins to heal, and the transformation is so smooth that it’s easy to miss if you’re not paying attention. Whether or not his changed attitude causes the healing or vice versa is uncertain, but his demeanor is certainly helped by Dr. Gibbons, a benevolent psychotherapist played by an unrecognizable Mel Gibson.
The supporting cast does a great job bringing out the best in Downey with their reactions and their subdued performances. Mel Gibson’s daring performance as the balding Dr. Gibbons is brilliant, because his usual onscreen presence is turned down a few notches to allow the focus to remain on Downey’s discovery of self. Robin Wright Penn is better than normal as Dan’s patient and loving wife, as is Katie Holmes as the sweet and somewhat naïve nurse. The story also cuts back to Dan Dark’s abuse filled past, where the younger Dark is played by Dave Dorfman, best known for playing the kid in The Ring.
While the subject matter can get heavy at times, Potter’s humor keeps it afloat, as do the different storytelling styles used. Like in Dennis Potter’s other famous work, Pennies from Heaven, brought to the big screen in 1981 by Steve Martin, one can’t help but smile when the dramatic story breaks into a song and dance numbers based on 50s classics like “Mr. Sandman” or “At the Hop”. The hard-boiled Chandleresque detective story that runs through the story is also enjoyable, as Downey’s detective taking on two bumbling gangsters, played by Oscar winner Adrien Brody and Coen Brothers’ vet Jon Polito. In the third act, the two of them break through the fourth wall of realities into the hotel room to come after the real Dan Dark. And that’s where things get really strange.
What Didn’t Work:
While Downey gives one of the strongest performances of his career, his character is so full of bile and hatred, that it’s hard to like him. He’s bitter, hateful, and his attitude towards women is deplorable. After awhile, one does begin to empathize with his situation and feel his pain, but it takes most of the movie to warm up to him. Because of this, it’s hard to truly love the movie. Some of the other performances get a bit over-the-top and hammy, particularly when the different worlds collide.
Next to Downey’s performance, the 50s numbers are the most entertaining moments of the film, but the transitions between them and the dramatic moments are jarring much like in Chicago and Dancer in the Dark, two other musicals that used song and dance numbers to show what was happening inside the lead character’s head. The musical numbers in The Singing Detective aren’t as inventive or as well developed as those musicals either. While fun, their lack of luster makes them seem little better something one might see in a high school musical. The actors don’t even pretend that they are really singing as opposed to poorly lip-syncing the songs. Though the musical numbers are endearing at first, they are heavily weighed towards the beginning of the movie, and later, when the pace slows down and one hopes for more music, they get none. There were many times during the noir and hospital scenes where a good score could have helped build up the drama or enliven the humor.
By its very nature, the storyline is complex and dialogue driven, but the pacing of the movie is just too eclectic and all over the place. It’s rather hard to focus at times, because there is way too much information being thrown your way. At the beginning of the movie, the cuts from reality to fiction hard and fast, but as the movie progresses, the camera stays far too long in one reality or another, which would be fine if the movie had a better look.
Unfortunately, the low budget production values tend to shine through. The cinematography and production design were rather lacking with drab sets, bad lighting and camerawork. It’s disappointing, since there’s obviously a good story and some amazing performances to be seen, and the lack of style hurts it greatly. The noir parts of the film don’t look much better than the Warren Beatty disaster, Dick Tracy, and though the musical numbers fare better, there are a lot of strange choices of lighting and camera angles throughout the movie that lessen the ability for one to enjoy what should be a visual spectacle.
The Singing Detective is a strange little movie – a surrealistic noir film one minute, an upbeat musical the next – and like other recent movie musicals, most people will either love or hate it. For the most part, it’s just too disjointed and eccentric for it’s own good, and it lacks the style that could have tied together all of the disparate parts into a cohesive whole. Because of this, the movie is hard to watch at times and difficult to understand at others. Despite the movie’s inconsistencies, the welcome return of Robert Downey Jr. and his fine performance pretty much saves the movie, much like he did in Chaplin. Let’s get him a better vehicle, please.