Browse all reviews by letter     A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z 0 - 9

USA 2003
Directed by
Keith Gordon
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
1 stars

The Singing Detective

Synopsis: Unsuccessful pulp fiction writer Dan Dark (Robert Downey Jr) lies in a hospital bed suffering from a debilitating skin disease and rages against the world and its unkind treatment of him. But is it the world or is he being literally consumed by his own bile? Fortunately there are some people who are willing to help him.

There are some films whose opening frames cause the heart of your ever-optimistic reviewer to sink to the bottom of his rib-cage. The Singing Detective is one such film. Opening with John Polito and Adrien Brody sitting in a car outside a neo-lit night club it typifies two of the glaring problems that drag this re-working of Dennis Potter’s original TV series down from the potentially entertaining to the actually disappointing – a singular lack of visual style and ill-considered casting.

The oleaginously pudgy, mustachio’d Polito, who will be remembered from Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink, is a perfect greaseball hoodlum type but one-time Oscar winner (how the mighty have fallen), sometime male model and all-the-time milque-toast Brody is as tough as custard, noisy gum-chewing notwithstanding. The incongruity of this pairing is, however, typical of the production. Robert Downey Jr. can be relied on when you want a laddish hustler with scant regard for social niceties, but I can’t believe that he’s ever read a book, let alone written one, even a bad one. As for Robin Wright Penn, why would anyone this gorgeous be married to sociopath with an excoriating tongue. With her looks she could be married to a way hip film star like…Robert Downey Jr., or even Sean Penn. There is however a nice twist to this inappropriate marquee casting and that’s the role played by the film’s producer, Mel Gibson. Hidden under considerable make-up, and cleverly playing against type, it took a close-up for me to recognize him. Unfortunately from then on I couldn’t take my eyes off the line where his wig adhered to his forehead.

It was apparently Downey who suggested Keith Gordon, an actor and buddy (they appeared together in the Rodney Dangerfield teen comedy, Back To School), for the directorial role. Gordon has directed a number of films, none of which I’ve seen, but on the strength of this I won’t be searching them out. The Singing Detective is dramatically flat and visually, well, ugly, is the word that comes to mind. Not ugly in the sense of gross and repugnant but more in the sense of drably unimaginative. The film flips through a variety of looks from over-lit clinical to low-lit noir and back again as the plot shifts between Dark’s hospital room to his Sam Spade imaginary universe but it always looks more televisual than filmic (Gordon has done quite a bit of directing for television) and invariably lacks atmosphere. And as for the choreography…for someone who’s got Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz on his C.V. (he had a minor acting role) Gordon clearly wasn’t paying attention. One can only wonder why, as, emanating from Gibson’s Icon Productions Inc this was hardly a cash-strapped project, the producers didn’t get a director like Rob Marshall or even Spike Lee up to the bridge.

Not all the blame can be attributed to Gordon. I’ve not seen Potter’s hugely successful original 80s television series but I can remember that it induced quite a bit of questioning of its cynically ‘sick’ humour. Potter’s sensibility is very, very English and very, very black. Perhaps the fact that in re-writing his teleseries as a film script, he relocated it to 1950s America and replaced all those wonderful 30s songs like Paper Doll and You Always Hurt The One You Love with doo-wop and early rock n’roll numbers seduced the Americans into thinking that they knew what they were doing. They didn’t. One wag has suggested that this was a tax write-off for Gibson, who, after The Passion Of The Christ has a serious excess of benjamins. Very droll, but I doubt it, as it has the feeling of earnest labour about it (an execrable end credit coda with the ‘real” Robert Downey Jr. in crooner mode seems to indicate that the makers thought they had produced a veritable opus). What it doesn’t have and what it sorely needed was wit, irony and style.

I predict that The Singing Detective will make many Worst Films of 2004 lists. Not because it is a bad film, but because it is such a thoroughly miscegenated and disappointing one, a mis-shapen thing doomed to go unloved in the world.




Want more about this film?

search youtube  search wikipedia  

Want something different?

random vintage best worst