Translating a first-rate concept from one medium to another is always a risky business, even a remake of a film carries with it the seeds of its own destruction as iconic stars and situations are recreated only to be endlessly compared to the original. Thus it is that THE SINGING DETECTIVE, so superb as a British miniseries written by Dennis Potter, has been turned into a feature film, also written by Dennis Potter, that deserves credit for daring to try even as it stumbles heroically.
It’s hard to point a finger at just went wrong. The performances by and large are first-rate. The direction by Keith Gordon shows sensitivity to the emotions that vent right and left with abandon, and the attention to subtle differences in visual cues that creates a distinct look and mood for the action in the present, the past, in reality or in the fevered hallucinations of the Dan Dark, the hero of our piece. Played by the always eminently watchable Robert Downey, Jr, this hallucinogenic writer struggles with the burden of a skin disease run amok and the ghosts of his past that seem to permeate in a most insidious fashion his every waking moment.
The past has been moved to the 50s, the venue to Los Angeles, and the scaly writer, played in the mini-series by Michael Gambon with a vitriol and a venom that was nothing less than fascinating to watch, is played with the same misanthropy by Downey, but also with a soft underbelly. Though this is the biggest change, it is also the one that works the best. By not trying to copy the original, it has opened the story up in a new way. Downey may be spewing the same venom, there this is a quality to his performance that makes of that anger a shroud to protect him from a world that has disappointed him at every turn. Even working beneath effects make-up that is replete with patches of jaundices putrescence and suppurating redness, it is his large and liquid eyes that command attention, pleading for peace both physical and mental. Downey is worth the price of admission for his performance. Even when perfectly still, he is a vivid presence on screen whose every emotion is on display, there is the palpable tension of emotional upheaval. His line readings, even at their cockiest, are rife with subconscious revelations of self-loathing and perceived betrayals.
Under what his doctors chirpily diagnose as visual dislocations, his imaginings take the form of lasciviously choreographed production numbers that feature the hero of his low-rent novels, the eponymous singing detective. His more lucid moments are spent writing a new novel in his head peopled by everyone hes ever met doing all manner of dastardly deeds all designed to do him in. Even the present, when he notices it, is not safe from his delusory state as his imaginings are given full rein if not full sanity. The many permutations are inhabited by his mother, an unlucky and unwise woman (by Carla Gugino demonstrating a delicate sense of tragedy), his fathers devious business partner (Jeremy Northam slithering in evil with obvious relish), and his intimidatingly beautiful wife, who is alternately spunky and put-upon. Shes played by Robin Wright Penn a bit woodenly, but then again, her character has little to do but look ravishing. The players are rounded out by a Laurel and Hardy style of thugs (Adrien Brody and John Polito), who menace everyone else while exchanging quips.
Dark injects himself into these shadowy flights of fancy, becoming the fictional detective with an effortlessly cool panache.
THE SINGING DETECTIVE delivers its Potter-style share of morbid wit, with Dark, the writer, confessing that he thinks all the problems of the world start with words. Yet, the thing as a whole never quite takes off. It has a peculiar lifelessness to it that belies the effort made by all and sundry. Is it that weve already seen the conceit of patients virtually ignored by their physicians as they cluster around them with all the emotional involvement of butterfly collectors examining a new specimen? Is it that the shortened form fails to engage us as a whole? Or is it that while everyone else is taking the material seriously, Mel Gibson, made up to look like Elmer Fudd, is playing Dark’s psychiatrist by doing a very bad impression of Robin Williams in PATCH ADAMS? Whatever it is, we as an audience are never drawn in and thats a darn shame fate for one of the more original psychodramas to have come from the end of the 20th century.