Unhinged melody

Movie: The Singing Detective

Our Rating: 2.00

See enough movies, and you'll grow to savor the experience of wondering, "What the hell is this?" 10 or 15 minutes into a picture that's doing its best to defy any rational attempt at classification whatsoever. The syndrome even holds when the film in question isn't particularly good. Sometimes, an unbroken string of flaky non sequiturs is all that's required to engender backhanded respect, or at least grudging acknowledgment.

That's "The Singing Detective," a quasi-noir medical musical mystery based on the BBC-TV miniseries of the same name. A real piece of crap by any objective means of judgment, the movie cycles through so many stylistic upheavals that you're tempted to put down your critical blowgun and just let the thing get away with whatever ill-advised audacity it wants to perpetrate next. How can you kill an animal you can't even identify?

Certainly the best psychological crime story ever to be propelled by a case of psoriasis, the movie puts sufferer Dan Dark (Robert Downey Jr.) in the hospital to receive treatment for his head-to-toe epidermal atrophy. Looking like a burn victim with better hair, the relentlessly cynical Dark, it's suggested, may have manifested his condition as the psychosomatic consequence of some inner shame. But getting to the bottom of his emotional problems isn't going to be an easy business for this sour mystery novelist, whose misanthropy makes Harvey Pekar seem like a member of Up With People. He'd rather race-bait one of the attending M.D.s (Alfre Woodard) or hurl misogynistic brickbats at his well-meaning ex-wife (Robin Wright Penn) than encourage the concerned probing of his assigned analyst, Dr. Gibbon (Mel Gibson, in a bald-pate wig that's cute for about a minute).

What's eating Dark up is his paranoid nature, a state of mind rooted in some hazily recalled Oedipal trauma of years past. His inner turmoil is conveyed in fantasy sequences imagined by the bedridden writer, miniature crime dramas that reconfigure the events of his life in the same pulpy terms that govern his fiction. Occasionally, these delusions devolve into awkward, poorly lit musical numbers set to period hits by the likes of Patti Page, and Danny and the Juniors.

So basically, you're watching "Kiss Me Deadly" grafted to "Whose Life Is It Anyway?" grafted to Born to Sing. Badly. The plot seems to be leading to a big revelation about Dark's tortured psyche, but it never comes. Playing the dual roles of troubled patient and imagined gumshoe allows the perpetually snarling Downey to garble his words for two entirely separate reasons, yet he still finds a way to chew the scenery: His is the sort of overconsidered performance in which each sentence of dialogue gets its own facial expression and/or vocal inflection. Chalk it all up as an interesting failure, especially if you're predisposed to find failure interesting.

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