'Detective' is musical mess

    ou know those people at the mall who look lost and confused? That’s the feeling upon walking out of “”The Singing Detective.””

    Courtesy of Paramount Classics
    Scaly detective: Robert Downey Jr. plays a 1920s detective with psychological problems and an unexplained skin disorder in this ensemble cast film.

    The movie is about Dan Dark, a detective novelist with a scarred childhood and a flimsy grasp on reality. Robert Downey Jr. plays Dark in one of his better performances. Haunted by his past and trying to outrun the misery of his own existence, Dark is a ball of depressed, sarcastic fury.

    In his attempts to renounce reality, Dark paints himself into the plot of his own detective novel. He becomes a 1950s gumshoe moonlighting as a singer who inspires the musical renditions of doo-wop hits in the film’s musical numbers. The sleuth finds himself playing a dangerous game in a story that mixes in his past and present with two murderous gangster thugs.

    The movie’s two basic settings are a hospital and the shadowed ’50s Los Angeles nightclub scene. Suffering from a crippling disease in his skin and joints, Dark is trapped in a hospital bed. The small, bright, sterilized room leaves nowhere for Dark to hide his scaly face. To add insult to injury, Dark is exposed to the inspection of a panel of aloof, musically inclined doctors. The sympathetic Nurse Mills (Katie Holmes) doesn’t necessarily help when faced with an embarrassing “”accident.”” The only character able to get through to Dark’s rage-spitting psyche is Dr. Gibbon (Mel Gibson). Although not easy to recognize, Gibson gives a great performance and the patient-doctor relationship between Gibbon and Dark is one of the few grounding aspects of the movie. Dr. Gibbon challenges Dark and manages to help the audience in its quest for a clue. Robin Wright Penn, Dark’s wife, tries to engage him but continually runs into his pain and paranoid delusions. Unable to disappear, the writer retreats to his fantasy world.

    The almost disconnected ’50s esque film noir into which the novelist retreats is the manifestation of his desires. Dark becomes the protagonist of his own detective story and yet is still unable to escape his true problems. The villainous two-thug team of gangsters played by Adrien Brody and Jon Polito run through killing people, but end up becoming as confused as the rest of us. The musical interludes, à la “”Grease,”” take place in this ’50s shadow, but come off weak and detached.

    A reinterpretation of the 1984 BBC miniseries by Dennis Potter, “”The Singing Detective”” is an entertaining, well-done, yet ultimately confusing film. Director Keith Gordon spins out a wonderful web of mystery, but fails to tie it all back together.

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