[Screen It]


(2003) (Robert Downey, Jr., Robin Wright Penn) (R)

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Drama: As a novelist recovers from a debilitating medical condition, a hospital psychiatrist tries to make heads or tails of his convoluted psyche that includes troubling childhood memories, hallucinations featuring full blown musical numbers and imagined views of his screenplay about a singing gumshoe.
Dan Dark (ROBERT DOWNEY, JR.) is a crime novelist who's hospitalized due to a severe case of psoriatic arthropathy, a crippling disease that's left his skin horribly scarred and his hands curled up into useless appendages. While the hospital's Chief of Staff (ALFRE WOODARD) and especially Nurse Mills (KATIE HOLMES) care for his body, staff psychiatrist Dr. Gibbon (MEL GIBSON) tries to figure out what's swirling about in the bitter man's head.

Beyond memories of his mother, Betty Dark (CARLA GUGINO), having an affair with her husband's coworker and then she and young Dan leaving home and setting off for another city, the writer has concocted an imaginary world. There, it's the 1950s and he's a singing gumshoe hired by Mark Binney (JEREMY NORTHAM) to investigate the murder of Nina (ROBIN WRIGHT PENN) by two hoods (ADRIEN BRODY & JON POLITO)

Not surprisingly, she looks quite a bit like Dan's real estranged wife, Nicola (ROBIN WRIGHT PENN), who's attempting, along with her lover (JEREMY NORTHAM), to steal his screenplay adaptation of his novel, The Singing Detective.

Confronted by childhood memories of Dan's past, imagined scenes from his screenplay and hallucinations featuring full blown musical numbers, Dr. Gibbon tries to sort out the convoluted psyche that simultaneously drives yet stymies Dark's state of mind and being.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
Given the descriptive title, it really shouldn't come as much of a surprise when a bunch of doctors and nurses suddenly break into a full-blown musical version of the 1950s hit, "At the Hop." Or when just the ladies do a bawdy version of "Mr. Sandman and, of course, especially when we see the warbling gumshoe.

All of that and a whole lot more is on display in "The Singing Detective," a surreal drama and occasional musical with Robert Downey, Jr. in the title role. As directed by Keith Gordon ("Waking the Dead," "A Midnight Clear") from the late Dennis Potter's ("Gorky Park," "Pennies From Heaven") adaptation of his previous script for the BBC TV show of the same name, the film is an eclectic and oddball sort of effort. It also doesn't always make a great deal of sense and ultimately isn't as good as it might have been.

When we first meet Downey's character, he appears to be the victim of a bad burning incident. His skin is horribly blistered and his hands are curled into useless appendages. Medicated and obviously upset and bitter over his condition (that turns out to be something entirely different), his mind gets the better of him and thus the presence of the lip-synched musical numbers.

He eventually begins psychotherapy with a staff psychiatrist - producer Mel Gibson in old man makeup - and his condition begins to improve, at first gradually and then dramatically. At the same time, Downey appears as the 1950s era titular character who's hired to investigate the murder of a lady who suspiciously looks like the patient's real-life, cheating wife.

As the various performers inhabit characters in both timelines and we start to learn more about the patient and his convoluted mindset, it's not difficult to discern that we're being handed a heaping plateful of symbolism.

In concept, that's not such a bad thing. Gordon, Downey and company have obviously created a complex character with deep-rooted problems and various means of escapism and coping. Yet, the execution leaves a bit to be desired.

Beyond being too obvious and heavy-handed, the film feels unnecessarily messy and complicated. I realize the point is for us to pick up on the clues and figure out what's really going on. Unfortunately, the gears, cogs and other bits of the mechanism are too apparent and distracting.

The other problem is that despite a standout performance by Downey, we don't really care about his character's plight or the outcome of the film. Perhaps it's all of the jumping back and forth through time and/or realities, but the film rarely engages on an emotional level and never maintains any sense of building momentum.

That aside, Downey ("Wonder Boys," "Black and White") is terrific playing the angry and bitter patient who's reluctant to let the psychiatrist into his head and thus troubled past.

Gibson ("Signs," "We Were Soldiers") is convincing enough in that role to make the part work, while Robin Wright Penn ("The Pledge," "Message in a Bottle") and Jeremy Northam ("Possession," "Gosford Park") inhabit the other dual-time roles. Adrien Brody ("The Pianist," ") & Jon Polito ("The Tailor of Panama," "Miller's Crossing") appear as two goons who obviously reside in the protagonist's mind and/or imagination but then appear to get loose (or do they?) and wonder how that might have happened. The likes of Katie Holmes ("Pieces of April," "The Gift"), Alfre Woodard ("Radio," "The Core") and Carla Gugino ("Snake Eyes," the "Spy Kids" films) appear in smaller roles.

Now that I've had time to digest and analyze the offering, I appreciate the film more than I did as it unfolded. That doesn't mean that it's good, however, although few will probably argue that it's clearly unlike most films you'll see this year. Rather intriguing but unfortunately not very engaging, "The Singing Detective" gets some points for its surrealism and quirky construct, but not enough to earn more than a 4 out of 10 rating.

Reviewed October 27, 2003 / Posted November 14, 2003

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