Historical Circuit: ‘The Singing Detective’ with Robert Downey, Jr. (2003) (★★★)

SingingDetectiveBy the beginning of the aughts (the 2000s or whatever you want to call them), the neo noir that scorched the Hollywood landscape a decade before was dead and  gone, about as much as Robert Downey Jr.’s career was. People forget the harsh slog RDJ went through before he nabbed the role of Tony Stark, and while it would be a noir throwback which presented him with his opening for a comeback – 2004’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – let’s talk about the one the year prior, the one that didn’t do well. Based on a 1986 BBC miniseries, Christine star Keith Gordon tried his hand at directing a big-screen adaptation and while the result isn’t perfect, it’s a fun and fascinating film with superlative performances from an A-list cast that showed the charisma of its leading man.

Author Dan Dark (Downey Jr.) suffers from debilitating psoriasis. Trapped in a hospital bed he spends his days tormenting the staff and blending reality with the fictional noir world of The Singing Detective, a novel he once wrote.

The Singing Detective is divided into many genres – it’s part noir, part musical, and part psychological – with Dark the conductor of every element. With only 109 minutes to tell the story there’s a lot left floating in the ether by the end, and I’m not talking about the dead prostitute in the lake. The noir segment involves a man (Jeremy Northam in one of three roles, all with the same name) and a dead woman (Robin Wright, also playing multiple characters). Like all good noirs, the actual mystery is left ambiguous, mainly because Dark himself doesn’t recall how it ends. It’s a MacGuffin, allowing Dark to purge his discontent with his wife, Wright’s Nicola, as well as his own issues regarding women and sexuality.

With such a brief time to tell the tale, it leads to the film’s harshest criticism: the treatment of women. Dennis Potter’s screenplay creates an out by acknowledging Dark’s misogyny and disgust with sex, stemming from his mother’s (played by Carla Gugino) promiscuity, as well as the noir fallback of personifying women as either madonnas or whores. Dark is such an unlikable character that you’re meant to see his way of looking at the world as wrong. He deeply mistrusts his wife, mistrust never yielding fruit as far as the audience is concerned, and thus casts her as a wanton whore or double agent in his mind’s novel; his mother, possibly hating her small town existence although we’re never sure, gets involved with her husband’s co-worker before moving to California and devolving into prostitution. The treatment of women is messy, but, sadly, nothing that hasn’t been seen or read in countless pulp novels and that’s what Dark writes, “Trash that doesn’t sell.”

Downey, Jr. swathed from head to toe in scabs from Dark’s skin ailments works best when he’s stuck in his hospital bed. With nothing but his thoughts, Dark’s mind slowly starts losing its grip on reality, with the characters from his books coming into his own world. Dyspeptic and cockier than Tony Stark could ever be, Downey as Dark suffers through the indignities of being bed-bound with all the tact of a scorpion, castigating everyone he comes in content with. His moments with Katie Holmes’ Nurse Mills are particularly pathetic, culminating in an embarrassing moment that would be more cringe-worthy if not for Holmes and a gaggle of females singing The Chordettes’ “Mr. Sandman” in the process.

I probably give The Singing Detective more leeway because of its music. It’s soundtrack, steeped in music that wouldn’t be out of place in American Graffiti, gives The Singing Detective some frivolity in the bleak, noir world of Dark’s head, as well as presents an interesting clash of 1950s nostalgic innocence coming up against sex and sin. “Poison Ivy,” “The Hop,” and more are performed by Dark’s alter ego, a gumshoe moonlighting as a singer. It’s said Downey, Jr. wanted to sing his own songs and he has great fun during the sequences, looking very much like a 1950s crooner. His final scene where said alter ego dons a fedora and a gun is Downey Jr. at his best.

In fact, the rest of the cast does well. Robin Wright as the caring wife, the doomed prostitute, and the femme fatale. Carla Gugino shows up in the second half as both Dark’s mother and a witness whose point is never properly explained outside of needing to put her in Dark’s noir. Jeremy Northam is sufficiently sleazy as the man whose dick always seems to get him in trouble. And Adrien Brody and Jon Polito play two hoods who almost seem based on Keenan Wynn and James Whitmore’s hoods from Kiss Me Kate.

The outlier is Mel Gibson as Dr. Gibbon. Don’t quote me, but I believe Downey Jr. lobbied for Gibson to be in the film (or it could have been the other way around), and this was touted as their “reteaming.” Obviously, in 2003 we didn’t know about Mel Gibson like we do now, and his role smells of stunt casting. With a bald cap, glasses, and a mild-mannered countenance, Gibson’s the equivalent of putting Jennifer Lawrence in Groucho Marx glasses in a B-list drama and playing it straight. There’s just no way to believe Gibson in the role, and that’s not because of what we know of his personality. The entire character, and his role as savior plays like you’d have an A-list star in the role. Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder this is not. He’s got some good scenes with Downey, but too often the film seems to skew towards being about Gibson’s character in the scenes they’re in.

Too often The Singing Detective fails to properly anchor anything. Take note of my mentions about never knowing everything, and I doubt that’s all because it’s a noir. Taking a nearly seven hour miniseries and condense it to an hour and forty leaves a lot unexplained, and there’s just isn’t enough contexualized for us to care about any story outside of Dark’s immediate plight. But the musical numbers, the noir throwback, and the cast keep things lively and engaging. This is a movie that, yes, frustrates, but also makes you wish the actors recounted the entire miniseries. As a classic film fan, I have to take a cue from Dan Dark and say, “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.”