Cinema Signal:

DVD: "The Singing Detective"
The 1986 original starring Michael Gambon

. "The Singing Detective"

I can't remember ever being so amused by something that defied coherence as much as this multi-genre piece of visionary movie making. But, intrepid reviewer that I am, I hung in long enough to dope out some meaning behind its flighty ways and realized that the people behind this deserve credit for having the courage to believe such an overstylized concept could find an audience. Well, a few hot stars and some gorgeous ones help the effort.

Comic strip minds are the most likely to understand and, even, appreciate its play between the real and the unreal, though the ground under both threads are as shaky as they are colorful. But the freedom to interweave planes of reality with wild intercutting (film editor, Jeff Wishengrad) amounts to story fragmentation that may be less than the sum of its parts. Still...

Dan Dark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is a pulp fiction novelist in the throes of so bad a case of psoriatic arthropathy, a crippling disease of the skin and bones, that he looks like a burn victim. He can barely move as his doctors and nurses treat his mottled skin with thick, gooey salve. But visions of his imagination are not impaired, producing a flow of scenes that are the product of a feverish, paranoid mind.

Thus it is that we see the caregivers suddenly lapse into song and dance, Dark himself singing on the stage of a shadowy, noirish cabaret, sexual hallucinations -- all of which threads into a Sam Spade style murder-mystery he's writing in his mind. We shouldn't be surprised, then, by his gradual response to the topical medication intercut with his fictional characters. A whore connected to an atomic scientist is killed while a pair of goony hit men (Jon Polito and Adrien Brody), dressed by Fellini (Not!), give clown-like chase.

Into this threatening dreamscape steps Dark's real life wife Nicola (Robin Wright Penn), who plays parts in his dreams as well. It's all she can do to convince him that she's not in league with his ficional characters in trying to steal the movie rights to his missing script.

Inviting a makeup critique is Mel Gibson as Dr. Gibbon, Dark's hospital therapist. Gibson's style and appearance defy any image cliches one might associate with this actor as he reveals an easy adaptability into the strange scenario, fully up to the visionary appeal of the ensemble. I dare you to recognize him the first time you see him.

Downey gives it all he's got in his paranoid rages tempered by fictional cool. Leading the fictional characters are Jeremy Northam as Mark Binney, the principal mobster target in Dark's mind-script, and Dark himself as a GQ incarnation of every noirish hero from the pens of Dashiell Hammett and his followers. Katie Holmes elevates the proceedings as the salve-smearing nurse fully able to lapse into song and dance; even as Carla Gugino smears glamour all over her roles as the gun moll, the hooker, and fictional Dark's wife Betty. If you don't recognize her name, tune in any week to her current TV series, "Karen Sisco." She makes it real easy to look at.

The melodies are of a like mind to the moody kaleidoscope, featuring the thematic support of such yesteryear evocations as "Three Steps to Heaven", "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window" and, my favorite of the soundtrack, "Mr. Sandman."

But, can you keep up with it all? Director Keith Gordon, and writer Dennis Potter, two guys with lots of TV credits, dare you to and they are in league with some spiffy expressionist photography (and lab work) by Tom Richmond ("House of 1000 Corpses") whose film pallette swings between deep saturation and desaturation as acrobatically as the supposed realities.

The entire visual team is likewise stunning and demand recognition, including production and costume design by Patricia Norris, set decoration by Jan K. Bergstom and painful-to-look-at, insightful makeup by Greg Cannom and Keith VanderLaan. Remember these names. They're a good bet for taking the stage at the award ceremonies.

Whether it's as much fun as a video game or a fun-house mirror for you is up to your sense of fun freakiness. Dig it or ignore it. We expect all Downey's fans will be lining up (they'll get all of him that they could possibly want) and, if the pace of reality switching combined with the slow moving dramatic skein doesn't wear them out, the word of mouth could make it more than just amusing.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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