The Singing Detective

In its original incarnation, The Singing Detective was a six-part BBC series that was popular with both audiences and critics. In its new form, The Singing Detective, reworked and trimmed down to under two hours is a curiously bad movie. Are the filmmakers trying to make a film this bad, or did it just turn out that way? Watching this film is like watching a traffic accident; it's a scary thing to look at but it's hard to turn away. The protagonist, Dan Dark (Robert Downey Jr., Lethargy, Wonder Boys), an author who is losing his mind. He is stuck in a hospital with a skin condition that makes his entire body look like the face of a pimple-ridden teenager. He also imagines himself as his own character, a detective that sings songs from the fifties. Reality and delusion mix in an utterly uninteresting fashion.

The doctors, chief among them Dr. Gibbon (Mel Gibson, Signs, We Were Soldiers) believe that Dark's crime books not only reveal clues about his conditions, and encourages his reluctant patient to talk more about his past. This gives some random flashbacks where a young Dark (David Dorfman, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Ring) watches as his father abuses his mother. In the present, a paranoid Dark berates his ex-wife (Robin Wright Penn, White Oleander, The Last Castle) who may or may not be out to bilk him out of his money. He imagines that she is in cahoots with Mark Binney (Jeremy Northam, Possession, Gosford Park), one of his fictional characters.

The story is not that hard to follow, despite the frequent delvings into the weird and the fact that many of the actors play two roles, one in the real world and one in Dark's imagination. The main issue is whether or not anybody cares. The late Dennis Potter (Mesmer, Track 49), who adapted his own series to the screen, makes the story so dull that one would rather Dark go completely insane. There are long stretches where nothing really happens, severely taxing the patience of anybody watching. Worse, Dark is annoying in both the real world and the fake one. In the hospital, he is gruff, prone to shouting, and morose. As the Singing Detective, he speaks with one of those annoying gumshoe accents and lip-syncs his way through some old standards.

The really sad thing is that director Keith Gordon (Waking the Dead, Mother Night) is working with some extremely talented actors, many of whom have small parts. There is nothing substantial for anybody except Downey, and nobody seems to know why they are there in the first place. The Singing Detective feels hastily thrown together even though it isn't, which is not a good sign. For anybody who has not seen the original, there is absolutely no motivation to seek it out a view it. After all, two hours of this was bad, three times the amount is worse.

Mongoose Rates It: Pretty Bad.
1 hour, 49 minutes, Rated R for strong sexual content, language, and some violence.

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