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THE SINGING DETECTIVE

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Robert Downey Jr., Robin Wright Penn, Jeremy Northam, Katie Holmes, Carla Gugino, Adrien Brody, Jon Polito, Mel Gibson
Director: Keith Gordon
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Paramount
Features: See Review
Length: 108 Minutes
Release Date: March 23, 2004

"My book…is full of clues."

Film ***

This past year was quite a cool little comeback year for Robert Downey, Jr. If you even begin to doubt it, consider this, two of the actor's recent films, Gothika and The Singing Detective, are hitting DVD in the same week. I have long felt that Downey Jr. has been one of the screen's most original and versatile actors since the late 80s. I've found his every performance to consist of equal instances of quirkiness and intensity. After all the trials and tribulations he has gone through in his personal life, including some very unfair treatment by the press, Mr. Downey Jr., who's clearly a survivor in real life, is still a pure delight to watch on screen. In addition, his work in The Singing Detective is a prime example of how incredible an actor he is.

The movie, which is sort of a broken down compilation of an eight hour BBC miniseries, is much similar to Adaptation in the way it paints simultaneous events that take place in actual life, as well as a world created by a tormented writer. The late English playwright Dennis Potter created the original series and also penned the screenplay for the film. Since Potter based the material on personal experiences that were troubling him, and having it all reflected through the lead character in the story, it sort of resembles the predicament of Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation.

Potter had completed the script over a decade ago, and two years prior to his death. It floated around the scene from that point on, until it caught the eye of director Keith Gordon, star Downey, Jr., and producer Mel Gibson. The story surrounds the troubling mind of pulp fictionist Dan Dark (Downey, Jr.), who is placed under care in a hospital because of severe skin condition he has. His appearance isn't the only thing troubling him; in fact, it's not even the least of his worries. Dark's psyche is also fractured at the moment, so much to the point that at times he can't make a distinction between the people in real life and the characters he has created in his novels.

His daily imaginings consist of seeing himself portraying the hero detective of his stories, a private eye gumshoe who also happens to be quite a slick crooner, hence the title. As part of his literary visions, he sees the femme fatale of the story played by none other than his ex-wife, Nicola (Robin Wright Penn). Visions of his mother (Carla Gugino) also find their way into Dan's mind. Another key player in Dan's world is that of his father's business partner, Mark Binney (Jeremy Northam). His mental troubles are what persuade doctors to summon the author to the office of Dr. Gibbons, a psychiatrist played by an incredibly unrecognizable Mel Gibson.

There are two areas that Dan, and his troubling mind, concentrates on frequently. In addition to his literary fantasies, he also reflects on events in his real life childhood, during which point it is revealed that his mother was having an affair with Mark. Mark also appears in the literary world as the man having an erotic encounter with the femme fatale played by the ex wife. In real life, Nicola cheated on Dan which fully explains his reasons for having the sultry seductress character reflect her in the story.

As you can probably gather from reading this review, explaining the world of The Singing Detective isn't exactly an easy one. All you have to keep in mind is that Dan's mind is in a spiral, and that his literary creations keep floating in his real life, and people in reality keep finding their ways into his book, and vice versa. Director Keith Gordon paints a well-conveyed bizarre atmosphere, complete with some even stranger music numbers which come into play when ever Dan's mind switches from reality to fantasy. The Singing Detective is not going to appeal to everyone's taste, but I do give it credit for being unique and bizarre. Even if you end up enjoying it, you may find yourself scratching your head a time or two.

Video ***1/2

Paramount delivers quite an eye popping anamorphic offering with this release. The movie is very keen with a few in-your-face wide angle shots, especially whenever Dan is experiencing characters from his novel talking to him, or his head to be more precise. There is a heavy use of lighting in many shots, which all turn up incredible. Despite a brief moment of soft imagery in a couple of darkly lit scenes, this is an overall expertly done presentation.

Audio ***

The 5.1 mix pays off extraordinarily well in a number of areas. As I mentioned before, the movie includes a few spontaneous music numbers, all of which are delivered in a most sharp tone of sound. Plus, a couple instances of gunfights come off with some strong presence. Dialogue and additional music are both handled very well. Despite not much rear channel usage, this is a most pleasant sounding release.

Features **

Included is a commentary track by director Keith Gordon, and a couple of bonus trailers.

Summary:

The Singing Detective is a very uncompromising piece that will plunge you into a world that's ever so unconventional. Highlighted by a strong and incredible performance by Robert Downey, Jr., this is a fun, if slightly demented, little piece of a noir/comedy, if you will.