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Natasha Gregson Wagner
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"While hospitalized with an extreme case of psoriasis, novelist Dan Dark reworks his first book in his head. Feverish, paranoid and prone to musical outbreaks, he confuses himself with his protagonist, a detective investigating the murder of a prostitute in 1950s Los Angeles." Written by
When 'The Singing Detective' was first produced as a TV mini series in 1986, it had a cumulative running time of well over 400 minutes. In this theatrical remake, the story has been pared down to no more than 106. I haven't seen the original - which enjoyed almost unprecedented critical acclaim in its time - so I have no idea how much of its quality has been lost in its currently truncated form. Hence, I will only be talking about this expurgated version, which stars Robert Downey Jr. and Mel Gibson, both in virtually unrecognizable roles. It should be noted that the screenplay is credited to the late Dennis Potter, the author of the original work, so we can assume that director Keith Gordon simply cut and pasted - though a less charitable person might say 'bowdlerized' - the much longer teleplay.
'The Singing Detective' tells the surrealistic tale of a writer of detective fictions who is suffering from a horrifically painful and disfiguring skin disease. As he lies in his hospital bed, his mind drifts back and forth between reality and fantasy, a hallucinatory condition brought on by fever and his own author's imagination. At times, Dan is acutely aware of his miserable situation in the here and now, with all its attendant physical and psychological agony. At other times he becomes lost in re-enactments of key scenes from his gumshoe fictions, memories of his miserable childhood, and elaborately staged song-and-dance numbers in which the characters lip-synch to musical standards from the '40's and '50's.
Because its style and subject matter are somewhat off-putting at first, 'The Singing Detective' takes a bit of getting used to, but eventually the themes and stylistic elements begin to come together and the film takes off. The irony is that, for all the razzle dazzle of its form and style, the film is at its most intriguing in its quieter, subtler moments when the embittered hospital patient is forced to confront the demons of his own tormented psyche. Dan Dark is a man who obviously prefers the world of fantasy to the cold harshness of an often excruciatingly painful reality. In addition to his debilitating disease, Dan is also haunted by a failed marriage and an often tragic childhood that he tries to 'correct' by entering the world of idealized fiction, one that he can manipulate and control. As the bombastic hospital psychologist figures out, Dan's illness is essentially psychosomatic in nature, one rooted in his inability to accept the realities of life in his own skin. In fact, Dan ultimately discovers that his disease is as much a product of his imagination as the scenarios and characters that make up his fiction. The illness becomes his way of not having to deal with his inner torments. Somewhat paradoxically, his writing becomes a form of therapy for him, helping him to deal with all that unresolved bitterness in his soul. The film is as much about psychological healing as it is about physical healing. Oddly enough, Dan's confrontations with his wife, psychologist and other hospital staff are actually far more interesting than what is happening in his rather puerile imagination. Still, towards the end of the film, when Dan starts to make some profound psychological breakthroughs, the fantasy scenes actually do begin to work and the complex structure pays off.
Downey does a fantastic job bringing Dan to life, conveying both the physical and emotional anguish the character is undergoing. Gibson has a great deal of fun playing the part of a paunchy, balding psychiatrist whose unorthodox methods wind up getting to the root of his belligerent patient's troubles. Robin Wright Penn, Jeremy Northam, Adrian Brody, Katie Homes and Alfre Woodard among others all deliver top notch supporting performances. And special praise must surely go to the large makeup staff whose work here is nothing short of miraculous.
'The Singing Detective' will probably not satisfy die-hard fans of the original lengthy mini series. But for the rest of us who have seen no other version than this one, the film's audacious style and complex themes help the movie ride up and over its not inconsiderable flaws.
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