At its heart, The Singing Detective is yet another movie about self-re-discovery shabbily disguised as unconventional, stylistic satire - a film, in a sense, that we just didn't need and wasn't, in the first place, necessary.
As an emotionally crippled writer of dimestore, film-noir fiction, author Dan Dark engages his warbling alter-ego to eliminate his own personal pin-striped demons. The twist, of course, is that all this occurs while battling a severe case of psoriasis, essentially trapping the author in the confines of his own useless body. Thus our tragic hero is forced to make sense of the increasingly blurry line between his gritty fiction and his equally disturbing past.
Sound familiar? Possibly not (unless you've seen the British miniseries, of course), but the rest, however, adds up to little more than a dull series of scenes alternating between his present condition and his musical delusions, placing him in the role of his most famous character, The Singing Detective.
Despite several excellent performances and a script brimming with sharp, double-edged dialogue, this stylistic delusion of a film ultimately generates about as much noise as a feather falling on sand. For a film described by director Keith Gordon as "your basic surreal lip-synched 1950's rock and roll musical / expressionist, absurdist film noir" there is a shocking lack of cinema to this supposedly ripe cinematic experience. Sure, there's visual style ringing in almost every shifting frame, but Gordon's direction rarely rises above the volume of a yawn, as everything about The Singing Detective plays out with a palpably muted quality. The transitions between Dark's tormented reality and his musically bustling, neon-noir dreamlife are both senseless and off-putting, while the musical moments themselves are visually unappealing and poorly staged, proving once again that it's rarely the what and always the how that can make the cinematic difference.
Which is not to say that The Singing Detective offers nothing to enjoy. In fact, the scenes between Robert Downey, Jr., as Dark, and Mel Gibson, as Dark's psychologist, are wonderfully-acted, sharply-scripted exchanges, with the two actors building off of a long-standing chemistry that shows nicely on screen. Further, Downey's moments as the Singing Detective himself make one anxious to see the actor take on a similar role elsewhere, but in a film more dedicated the noir genre. Here, Downey deftly handles the side-talking, pulp dialogue with a charming assuredness, as well as tackling the bitter cynicism of Dark's real life persona with a boiling honesty that clearly illuminates his range.
Unfortunately, however, for as visual and stylistic as The Singing Detective aspires to be, it is, quite honestly, a rather simple character study, and its moments of greatest success are the smaller, more intimate points that require little more than two people and a chair. All which makes one wonder, of course, if this is a story better suited to the intimate confines of a Manhattan playhouse than one's local neighborhood Cineplex.
But in the end, the film remains a film and its potential remains just that - potential, undeveloped and uninspired - and what a waste, really, that the finished film might have been so much better.