|The Singing Detective (2003)
Arguably Dennis Potter was one of the most innovative screenwriters of
the late 20th Century. Two of his miniseries, originally produced for British
television, "Pennies From Heaven" (1978) and especially "The Singing
Detective" (1986), are among the very best that medium has produced.
His success before the advent of DVDs, of course, was far greater in his native
England than in the United States. In America, the programs only reached a
selected audience as they aired on PBS and later cable. The critical acclaim
afforded these groundbreaking shows, though, inevitably brought Hollywood
calling. In 1981, Herbert Ross directed an Americanized PENNIES FROM HEAVEN
starring Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters. Although championed by some
reviewers, the movie proved to highbrow for audiences expecting another
THE JERK and it became a box-office failure. Potter himself was said to be
unhappy with the script and before his death he wrote his own movie adaptation
of THE SINGING DETECTIVE. His attempt to condense the six-hour original
into a two-hour movie is analogous to the now ubiquitous Broadway adaptations
of feature films: Something vital is lost.
The Americanized version of THE SINGING DETECTIVE also has the
problem of competing with the DVD of the original, which featured a towering
central performance by Michael Gambon as a mystery writer afflicted with acute
psoriasis who imagines himself the hero of his own novel. In the British version
the setting was the 1940s and the lead was called Philip E. Marlowe thus
allowing Potter to pay homage to the films noir or that decade. Similarly, the
interpolated songs that were lip-synced (a device also employed in
PENNIES FROM HEAVEN) were from that era. The feature film version, for
some inexplicable reason, moves the time line up to the 1950s and uses
novelty songs like "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?" for effect.
The central character remains an author suffering with a skin condition,
but he now carries the moniker Dan Dark. Robert Downey Jr. gamely steps
into the Gambon role and the actor once again demonstrates just how
strong and powerful an actor he is. Despite his well-documented off-screen
troubles, Downey has always been one of contemporary cinemas most
accomplished actors and his disciplined performance goes a long way in
making this screen version a success.
Director Keith Gordon handles the dramatic action well, but stumbles
a bit in staging me of the musical fantasies (particularly one featuring Katie
Homes lip syncing "Mr. Sandman"). The song choices, which undoubtedly were
Potter's, also don't provide the ironic commentary that those in the original do.
Still, Gordon elicits terrific work from his cast, particularly Carla Gugino as
Dark's mother, Mel Gibson in the supporting role of a psychiatrist, Robin Wright
Penn as Dark's wife and Jeremy Northam in multiple roles.
There really wasn't any pressing need to remake THE SINGING DETECTIVE,
but this version at least gives audiences a chance to see once again just
how good an actor Robert Downey Jr. can be given the right material.
Running time: 109 mins.
MPAA rating: R for strong sexual content, language
and some violence
Viewed at Cinema Village
|© 2005 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.