Monday, August 25, 2008

Movie review: The Singing Detective

“All clues. No solutions.” This is the tag-line of the strange little 2003 film, The Singing Detective, screenplay by Dennis Potter (and a retrofit of the British miniseries). Packed with a great cast and a wonderful soundtrack, I don’t remember this non-linear fantasy detective story ever being promoted for the theaters. It would have been a tough one to market - am I right or am I right?

The main story is that of Dan Dark (Robert Downey, Jr.), a bitter, angry writer who has been hospitalized for a chronic skin condition. A prisoner of his own scaly, suppurating integument, Dark is vicious to all around him – his wife Nicola (Robin Wright Penn, who has never been more gorgeous), the physicians trying to treat him, the sweet little nurse (Katie Holmes, harmless as usual) – and his only source of comfort is a retreat into fantasy as his alter-ego, a noir detective investigating the murder of a prostitute. The hospital forces Dark to visit the odd staff shrink (Mel Gibson, unrecognizable and completely cast against type) who recognizes a deep-seated misogyny in his irascible patient and forces him to face its origins. Meanwhile, Dark’s wife is in cahoots with a sleazy movie producer (Jeremy Northram) to steal Dark’s screenplay adaptation of his biggest book, The Singing Detective ... although this may just be Dark’s paranoiac delusions. It’s just not clear.

That’s the main story. There’s also Dark’s flashbacks to his desolate childhood: as a boy, inadvertently catching his mother (Carla Gugino) in an affair (also Jeremy Northram) and her later suicide after backsliding into prostitution. The third storyline, interwoven with the modern story and the flashbacks, is the tale of the Singing Detective himself (Downey, Jr.), hired by a rich man (also Jeremy Northram) to clear his name of the murder of a prostitute (also Robin Wright Penn) which was actually done by hired thugs (Adrian Brody and Jon Polito) paid by Northram. It’s a lot to keep track of – ooh! there’s also lip-synced fantasy musical numbers – and it really gets weird when the hired thugs show up in the modern Dark’s hospital to kill him, with the Singing Detective showing up to save the day. Sort of.

Robert Downey, Jr., is brilliant, as expected: brittle and funny and nasty and so very wounded. He is a joy to watch (in almost anything, I think). Gibson underplays his eccentric psychiatrist nicely; everyone else does a good, solid job – no scenery-chewers here. I had a little trouble catching some of the dialogue: Downey, Jr., speaks very quickly and often very softly; cranking the volume up on my television was fine until it cut to a musical number and blew out my eardrums.

The one real problem I had with this movie goes back to the tag-line: All clues, no solutions. In Myers-Briggs I am strongly a “J” (Judging”) which means that I like closure … and movies like this bug the hell out of me - all middle and no real beginning or end. I can deal with the non-linear storytelling if issues get resolved (Memento is one of my favorite movies after all) but here there’s no resolution for almost anything other than Dark checking out of the hospital. The Detective doesn’t close his case; we don’t know if Nicola and the sleazy producer steal Dark’s screenplay; we don’t find out why the thugs keep appearing in all three time/storylines; Dark has a break-through but then his therapy stops short. C'mon - don't leave me hanging! How about some solutions, at least?! Grrr.

I found The Singing Detective smart, entertaining and full of possibilities, but ultimately frustrating and unfulfilling. That's okay - they can't all be Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Next stop on my RDJ tour: Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus.

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