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'The Singing Detective'

'Singing Detective' hits a wickedly playful note

Friday, November 14, 2003

By Barry Paris, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Talk about the heartbreak of psoriasis ...



RATING: R for sexual content, language and violence

STARRING: Robert Downey Jr., Robin Wright Penn, Mel Gibson

DIRECTOR: Keith Gordon


Crime novelist Dan Dark (Robert Downey Jr.) is hospitalized for psoriatric arthropathy, the crippling skin disease he has suffered since childhood. With his hideous scabs and excruciating pain, he's a latter-day elephant man, lost in the delirium of a screenplay-in-progress starring himself as a private eye (and dance-band crooner) tangled up in the murder of a prostitute.

"The Singing Detective" is a faux film noir musical, mixing reality with fiction in 1950s Los Angeles: Dark's ex-wife (Robin Wright Penn) seems to be stealing his script and -- insult to injury -- sleeping with one of his characters. Meanwhile, his creepy shrink (an unrecognizable Mel Gibson) jousts with him to lance his psychological as well as dermatological boils, serving the same structural purpose as those doctor-narrators in "The Madness of King George" and the Marquis de Sade's "Quills."

From its bizarre "At the Hop" opening to its closing moments, Dark's seriocomic dilemma is punctuated by such lip-synced '50s hits as "Mr. Sandman," "All in the Game," "How Much Is that Doggy in the Window," "Poison Ivy," "It's Only Make Believe" and the Kalin Twins' "When" -- plus Mormon Tabernacle Choir selections from "The Sound of Music."

Derived from the 1986 British miniseries by Dennis Potter, its time-space cultural continuum is shifted from '40s U.K. to '50s U.S. The screenplay is a sort of existential "Maltese Falcon" -- a script within a script, fragmentally melding surreal comedy and expressionist psychodrama -- overly ambitious, with increasingly ponderous levels. But it is beautifully rendered by director Keith Gordon (who made the wonderfully wicked "Chocolate War" in 1988 and the superb anti-war film "A Midnight Clear" in 1992), marvelously assisted by the evocative cinematography of Tom Richmond.

Adrien Brody, Jon Polito and Jeremy Northam are great fun as evil hoodlums, but the title role is all we really care about. Among those initially considered for it were Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson and Gibson himself. Thank God it went to Downey, who plays it as a cross between the Bogart archetype and Garrison Keillor's "Guy Noir" caricature.

The result: "Carnal Knowledge" meets "Beauty and the Beast," with a "2001" finale.

"Singing Detective" is wickedly playful and provocative -- adjectives that also characterize its star. Among his generational peers, there is no better actor. How many more amazing performances -- after "Chaplin," "Two Girls and a Guy" and the one at hand -- will it take before the media vultures and idiotic voyeurs who feast on celebrity substance abuse get off Downey's private issues and onto his professional brilliance?

Barry Paris can be reached at 412-263-3859.

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