Once upon a time, I had this really amazing idea for a takeoff of the interracial buddy cop comedy, only it would star a guy with cerebral palsy and his partner with Down Syndrome (the brains and the brawn, if you will) called “Officer Downs.” I’m lazy, so I never got past the first page, but when I heard about a Norwegian film about a detective with Down Syndrome called “Detective Downs,” needless to say, I was intrigued.
Turns out, Detective Downs isn’t quite the high-concept comedy I envisioned (nor is the main character named Reginald P. Downs, as Tyler Perry would surely have written it). Detective Downs, from director Bård Breien, is actually just a straight-up noir comedy that happens to have a guy with Down Syndrome in the lead. The nimble script doesn’t pretend he doesn’t have Downs, but, admirably, it doesn’t lean on this fact for cheap humor either. That said, there is a great scene where the detective gives a lady oral pleasure. She loves it, and why wouldn’t she, with that thick tongue of his.
Detective Downs is actually about as far from exploitative as could be, almost to its detriment, and watching lead actor Svein André Hofsø Myhre do the pre and post-screening Q & As entirely in his second language (!!!) downright shamed me (as it should virtually the entire American education system). Detective Downs is cute, bordering on heartwarming. At worst, it might be too cute. At its best, there’s an irresistible dance sequence that I’d rate right up there with Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s famous number with cartoon birds set to Hall and Oates in 500 Days of Summer.
Myhre plays Robert Bogerud, your typical fedora-topped, trenchcoat-clad private dick, who can’t seem to get a case on account of people not wanted to hire the disabled. He gets the occasional phone call, but his potential clients cut bait when they see who they’ve hired, thinking it’s some kind of joke. Robert even gets thrown out of his favorite strip club when the stripper storms off stage, cursing “I can’t concentrate with that mongo staring at me!” (*cue sad trombone*) (*cue reference to my sex life*)
But before you can say “life goes on,” Robert’s got himself a case, tasked with finding an aging former speed skating champion (and con man) named Olav Starr who’s vanished without a trace. Robert’s been hired to find (or not find) Olav by Starr’s shady family – the senile but good-hearted grandma, Olav’s shallow former beauty queen wife, his fat slob of a son, and sullen fashion model daughter. Robert tells the family he has a “special method” that involves immersing himself in Olav’s life and using his powers of empathy to find the key to his disappearance. This means Robert going around town in Olav’s cravat and goofy speed-skating cap and trying to sleep in bed with Olav’s wife. Before long, Robert’s elbow deep in Olav’s secret life, which includes fetish clubs, transvestites, and a mail-order penis pump business that uses Olav’s hot daughter Isabel (Ida Elise Broch) as the main print model (arguably the kinkiest part).
Only the country that gave us Norwegian black metal could make a movie with all of those things and still have it be described as “cute,” but seriously, cute is the dominating sentiment here. It’s like Detective Downs has a whole extra chromosome worth of cute! Okay, I’m honestly sorry for that one.
Robert keeps lucking into clues as to Olav’s whereabouts (along with a bundle of ransom money), but no one will believe him, not even his police officer father. Handicaps and sexual subplots aside, Detective Downs plays like a light detective story, a Hardy Boys mystery or a case for Encyclopedia Brown, and it’s a testament to the writing that it can pull it all off. The light noir-comedy approach works when it’s treating its protagonist like a lovable Mr. Magoo, though it borders on condescension towards the end when it treats Robert’s “special method” of empathy like it’s a real super power. It may be more a criticism of the historical cliché to make less intelligent characters more in touch with their feelings than an issue specific to Detective Downs, but either way it’s not something you want to be reminded of.
At one point, Robert and another character nearly have a cry about their unsupportive fathers while a man’s about to be burnt alive, which highlights some of the tone problems in the last 10 minutes or so.
Detective Downs edges ever so slightly towards schmaltz in the third act and I’m not a huge fan of the decidedly un-noir ending (and what is it with every film cramming in an unnecessary chase sequence?). I would’ve preferred just a couple nods at the kind of Detective Downs I imagine Lars Von Trier or Harmony Korine making. But anyway, okay, so it’s not quite the Down Syndrome movie I would’ve made. But in the end, it’s as hard not to love as its protagonist. During the post-screening Q & A, Myhre was asked about his favorite scene, and he (again, in English) singled out a scene where his character gets to kiss Isabel, saying “I always dreaming about [having] girlfriends with girls who look like Isabel.”
Me too, bud. Me too.
Svein André Høfso Myhre with director Breien at Fantastic Fest, the film’s world premiere. Photo credit: David Hill.