Movie review: 'The Singing Detective'

2-1/2 stars (out of 4)

"The Singing Detective," an Americanized version of writer Dennis Potter's 1986 BBC TV series, takes great material and blows it. That's a pity, because the original was one of the pop-culture wonders of our time, a wild mix of psychological drama, film noir and musical kitsch that broke boundaries and ravished mind and heart.

Potter's TV "Detective" delved into the soul of a writer afflicted (like Potter himself) with a hideous skin-and-bone disease, peeling past the writer's ruined flesh into his magical dream world, where the pain of his bedridden life was relieved by lyrical boyhood reveries and pulp-noir fantasies of hard-boiled detectives, flashy dames and cold killers. All of this was also interspersed with Potter's specialty: playful lip-synch song-and-dance routines of the '40s-era pop hits he loved.

The results were reminiscent of Fellini's dream-and-reality in the classic "8 1/2," but richer psychologically and dramatically. But if the original TV version, which starred the leonine Michael Gambon as writer Phil Marlow, was a triumph, the film is an honorable failure. Despite intelligent, sympathetic direction by Gordon, a brilliant lead performance by Robert Downey Jr. and an adapted script written by Potter himself before his 1991 death, this "Detective" pales next to its predecessor.

That doesn't mean the film "Detective" doesn't have rewards. Downey may not match or surpass Gambon, but he's remarkable all the same. As the renamed writer Dan Dark, his dark eyes blaze with a mad glow, his mercurial personality vaults from Dark's dream to reality. Downey succeeds on three different levels: dramatic, comic and - in the end credits when he finally sings for himself - musical.

The supporting cast, though not always well-used, is first rate: Robin Wright Penn as Dark's conniving wife, Nicola; Jeremy Northam as film-noir tough guy Mark Binney; Adrien Brody and Jon Polito as the two omnipresent raincoated hoods; and co-producer Mel Gibson nearly unrecognizable as grizzled Dr. Gibbon.

And there's always that writing. The original "Detective" was one of the few TV or film scripts that qualifies as a work of art in its original literary form, and Potter's writing is hair-raisingly fine. The dialogue sings and stings; Dark's monologues are great, venomous bursts of eloquence and wit.

When Potter rewrote his other great British TV miniseries, "Pennies from Heaven," for the Americanized 1981 Steve Martin movie, he didn't compromise its source. But perhaps because "Detective" is so obviously more personal, it seems more diminished here. The movie version has a less believable "real-life" story, less jarring hospital scenes, a less rich and rare noir fantasy world.

The original also had better musical numbers. In the BBC "Detective," Potter used the melodic pop songs of his '40s boyhood: Bing Crosby's bouncy "Accentuate the Positive" and The Andrews Sisters' soaring "Bie Mir Bist du Schoen." Here, the '50s oldies underscoring Dark's journey - which range from Patti Page's novelty "How Much is That Doggie in the Window" to bare-bones rock by Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran - don't have the same show-biz lilt.

If the movie doesn't really work, it's because it's a hard piece to bring off, an extremely high mark to hit. Still, enough magic is left, especially in Downey's performance, to shock and beguile us. Potter, like many great film and TV artists, distilled marvels from the pain and murk of his life, the vaulting ecstasy of his pop dreams. Gordon's "Singing Detective" gives us at least a taste of them.

"The Singing Detective"
Directed by Keith Gordon; written by Dennis Potter, based on Potter's TV-series script; photographed by Tom Richmond; edited by Jeff Wishengrad; production and costumes designed by Patricia Norris; music supervision by Ken Weiss; produced by Mel Gibson, Steve Haft, Bruce Davey. A Paramount Classics release; opens Friday, Nov. 14. Running time: 1:49. MPAA rating: R (language, sexuality, nudity and violence).
Dan Dark - Robert Downey, Jr.
Nicola/Nina/Blonde - Robin Wright Penn
Dr. Gibbon - Mel Gibson
Mark Binney - Jeremy Northam
Nurse Mills - Katie Holmes
First Hood - Adrien Brody
Second Hood - Jon Polito
Chief of Staff - Alfre Woodard

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