Skin Deep

The Singing Detective has a rash of issues.

The Singing Detective
Robert Downey Jr. is compelling as a writer trapped in - a waking nightmare.
Robert Downey Jr. is compelling as a writer trapped in a waking nightmare.
A few words of advice for those fortunate enough to have seen the original The Singing Detective miniseries that aired on the BBC in 1984: If you plan on seeing the new movie, also called The Singing Detective and also written by the late Dennis Potter, try to forget about the TV show. It's all too easy to play compare-and-contrast, and as good an actor as Robert Downey Jr. is (the mere fact that people will still hire him, despite his rowdy reputation, is testament to that), he's not Michael Gambon. Go ahead, try to imagine Downey playing Headmaster Dumbledore. See? Can't be done. Not without considerable mirth, anyhow. Which brings us full circle, because the new, 109-minute theatrical Singing Detective frequently does play for comedy what its predecessor did for pathos.

If you're freed of false expectations (a second viewing helps), it's easier to accept the film for what it is. One can also savor Downey's performance more, without having to worry about plot -- which, for what it's worth, boils down thus: Pulp writer Dan Dark (Downey) is traumatized by the fact that his mother (Carla Gugino) slept around.

Dark's trauma has manifested itself in the flesh as an extreme form of psoriasis (from which writer Potter also suffered), turning him into a "human pizza" taut with rage, teeth forcibly clenched, and hands permanently balled into fists. What we are watching is a subjective projection of his mind as he works through his issues, flashing back and forth between a detective novel he wrote some years ago and now sees himself in; the real past, mainly at his dad's gas station in the middle of the desert; and the present, in a hospital, where walls occasionally disappear and doctors break out into '50s songs. On the other hand, we may be seeing the screenplay that he wrote, based on his novel: As with Adaptation, there are several levels of self-reflexivity at work here, and recurring characters move back and forth between the levels. Some, like the double-dealing Mark Binney (Jeremy Northam), have their basis in reality; others, like the two nameless thugs played by Adrien Brody and John Polito, are a little more ambiguous. Charlie Kaufman owes much to Dennis Potter.

The musical numbers always created a somewhat Brechtian sense of artifice, but that's amped up even more here, with the casting of Downey's longtime pal Mel Gibson as Dark's counselor, Dr. Gibbon. It would have been easy enough to cast someone older, but in putting a bald cap and age makeup on Gibson, who also alters his voice to sound older and more nebbishy, director Gordon all but obliterates suspension of disbelief, which is entirely the point. The hallucination-prone Dark can't believe what he sees, and neither can we. It's impossible to forget we're watching a famous and handsome actor in prosthetics, much as it's impossible for Dan Dark to forget that familiar pop songs from his youth are somehow emanating from the mouths of his doctors. Yet there they are, and we deal with it.

It's a given that Dark's problems have much simpler roots than those of Gambon's Philip Marlowe in the miniseries -- 109 minutes simply can't contain the same amount of information as a few hours. The detective-novel sequence suffers the most: Downey is less believable as a gumshoe than as a patient, though again, his inability to convince as a Sam Spade type may be deliberate postmodernism. The plot of Dark's novel, however, when fully revealed, is kinda goofy, the sort of thing one can imagine selling in the actual '50s, but the movie implies that Dark is a contemporary writer, and it's hard to imagine today's book-purchasing public buying into it.

Length is also a problem in translation -- though miniseries and movie cover a similar span of time, it's easier to feel it if the story plays out to viewers over the course of six weeks, as opposed to a little over an hour and a half. Relative to his predecessor, Dan Dark seems to deal with lifelong issues awfully quickly.

But again, these are mainly issues of baggage from a fan of the original. Viewed purely as its own thing, The Singing Detective is a wonder to look at, centered by a compelling Downey performance that likely draws heavily on his recent stints in prison and rehab. Less showy, but equally strong, is Robin Wright Penn as Dark's estranged wife, who may or may not be double-dealing and is represented as a murdered hooker in the film-noir visions. And Gibson, for all the inherent silliness that the bald cap represents, finally acknowledges his own height, or lack thereof. In one of the movie's best lines, Downey tells his doctor that "Little men shouldn't sit where their feet don't touch the floor." He also tells Gibson that he should be a professional critic, because "You got the face for it." Hey, I'll take that as a compliment.

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