The Singing Detective
3 out of 5 stars
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Before his death in 1994, Potter wrote this film script based on his milestone 1986 TV series, and the resulting film is stylish and entertaining, cleverly examining themes of creativity and mortality in a mixture of genres--comedy, musical, farce, thriller, mystery. It may be too chaotic to work, but it's fascinating while it lasts! Novelist Dan Dark (Downey) is in hospital with perhaps the worst case of eczema you've ever seen. Trapped in bed and then in sessions with his shrink (an unrecognisable Gibson), his feverish brain starts working out the plot of the next instalment in his Singing Detective mystery series, while struggling with issues regarding his mother (Gugino) and his wife (Penn). Fantasies are played out on screen vividly, blurring the lines between fact and fiction, with characters emerging in various roles.

This is an ambitious project for the normally introspective Gordon (A Midnight Clear). But the film looks great--with a kitsch design that spins out of control with each shift in tone. Lighting, film stock, design and soundscaping alter radically as we switch from one "reality" to the next. Some of the sudden musical numbers seem rather pointless, but the Chicago-style transitions work well--most songs are performance pieces in Dark's mind, rather than full-on production numbers right in the set, as in the BBC series. It's very cheesy at times, but the script's acid wit makes it compelling. Downey is excellent as the bitter and twisted Dark, a kind of evil puppet-master who loses control of his creations. And the surrounding ensemble is excellent, from larger roles like Northam's double character to supporting parts for the sexy Holmes (as a nurse) and the hilarious Brody and Polito (as mob thugs). The problem is that the film is all over the place, veering wildly from broad slapstick to subtle character drama and back again, often within a scene. It's difficult to stay with a film like this, to remain in Dark's head and not get caught up in the swirling, manic imagery. But the excellent cast makes it entertaining and often extremely touching.

cert 15 themes, language, sex, violence 30.Oct.03

dir Keith Gordon
scr Dennis Potter
with Robert Downey Jr, Robin Wright Penn, Mel Gibson, Jeremy Northam, Carla Gugino, Katie Holmes, Adrien Brody, Jon Polito, Saul Rubinek, Alfre Woodard, Amy Aquino, David Dorfman
release US 24.Oct.03; UK 14.Nov.03
03/US 1h49

Song and dance: Downey and the chorus line...

downey wrightpenn northam
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2003 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall