It's always encouraging to see Hollywood taking risks. The Singing Detective, starring big-name talent Robert Downey Jr., Robin Wright Penn, Katie Holmes and Mel Gibson is the kind of thing that, in theory, you want to see more of out of Tinseltown. It's audacious, original, genre-bending and potentially thought-provoking, full of strong performances and inventive cinematography. Unfortunately, it's also really, really bad.
Based on an acclaimed British miniseries, Detective features Downey as author Dan Dark, a bitter misogynist whose one successful novel (with the same title as the movie) is about a 1950s gumshoe who moonlights as a lounge singer. Dark is in the hospital with a rare skin condition, and as he tries to recover, he hallucinates scenes from his novel, with Downey doubling as the detective, also named Dan Dark.
Oh yeah, and everyone sings. Or rather, they lip-sync, as late writer Dennis Potter and director Keith Gordon have their actors move their mouths to hits from the 1950s. The combination of musical, film noir and character study is unlike anything else at the movies, and may very well have worked brilliantly in Potter's miniseries. But Gordon's film is a confusing, irritating mess.
Dark casts figures from his life in his memories of his novel. His wife (Penn) is a femme fatale; his mother (Carla Gugino) is a fragile woman forced into prostitution; Dark the detective is hounded by two goons (Jon Polito, Adrien Brody). It's all meant to symbolize something, as Dark's avuncular psychiatrist (Gibson) tries to figure out. But nothing ever comes together to offer insight into the bitter man.
Potter's original series has been so slavishly praised that there's obviously good material in here somewhere. Downey gives a great performance, and the noir scenes are perfectly shot. But the musical numbers feel out of place, the styles don't mesh, and ultimately it's impossible to care what happens to Dark because he's just so unrelentingly hateful.
This is the kind of film that gives experimentalism a bad name, an ambitious failure weighed down by its own pretensions. No doubt even Potter would have suggested you rent the mini-series instead.