"The Singing Detective"

Fans of the classic Dennis Potter BBC miniseries: Stay far, far away from this pale, Americanized imitation.

Published November 7, 2003 9:00PM (EST)

It's unlikely that any version of Dennis Potter's "Singing Detective" could ever hold a candle to the 1986 BBC production directed by Jon Amiel that, for my money at least, is still the greatest thing ever presented on television. Disappointment over the new film version, directed by Keith Gordon from a script Potter himself completed before his death in 1994, seems inevitable for those of us who love the original. Bafflement seems a more likely prospect for the moviegoers who see this "Singing Detective" without the benefit of having experienced the original. Gordon's film is an art-house curio, visually ugly and emotionally and narratively dissonant. Its cheapness and poverty of imagination consistently undermines its ambitions and reduces its complexity to by-the-numbers Freudianism.

To be sure, Potter was dealing in Freud. In the original serial (as in Gordon's movie version), his protagonist, a washed-up mystery writer, was suffering from a ghastly outbreak of psoriatic arthritis (the disease that crabbed Potter's own hands into fists), which functioned as an external symbol of the rage and anxiety boiling inside him. Lying in his hospital bed, Potter's novelist hero Marlow (played by Michael Gambon in the BBC version) was free to hallucinate scenes from his rural English childhood, free to re-imagine the plot of one of his detective novels with himself as the gumshoe and his imagined enemies the villains, free to indulge in the musical fantasy sequences that were Potter's trademark. Add the anger he still felt over his mother's betrayal of his father, his sexual fury at his own estranged wife, Potter's consistent equation of writer's block with impotence and the way his protagonist's sexual fantasies found release in the misogyny of hard-boiled detective fiction, and you've got a Freudian cauldron.

But unlike the way '50s Hollywood discovered and used Freud -- as a convenient explanation for every buried trauma and resentment -- across the series' six episodes, Potter and Amiel constructed something halfway between a detective story and a word puzzle modeled on those three-dimensional tic-tac-toe games. And as always with Potter's work, the show was about the way pop culture, in this case detective fiction and the hit songs of the '30s and '40s, seeps into the cracks and marrow of our psyches and memory, becoming vehicles for fantasies of lust, revenge, rapture. Again and again in Potter's work, the characters begin lip-synching to classic pop songs. Potter may have been suggesting the way we lose ourselves in popular culture, but the stronger impression was of people finding their voice, of pop songs allowing them the highest, clearest expression of what was inside them.

The failure of the big-screen version of "The Singing Detective," in which Robert Downey Jr. plays the writer (here given the lousy name Dan Dark), isn't a case of a six-hour-plus series being compacted into two hours. When Herbert Ross adapted Potter's BBC serial "Pennies From Heaven" into a two-hour 1981 film, the result was the greatest of all American movie musicals. But Ross thought big. He reworked the story of a traveling sheet-music salesman into a huge MGM musical, something big enough to contain his characters' fantasies. Gordon's "Singing Detective" isn't even big enough to occupy the screen.

It is in every way diminished from the BBC version, stuck in a nowheresville between bland naturalism and undercooked expressionism. The sets are all blank and anonymous. They look as if they were waiting for the set decorator to go to work and the actors to show up. Even the fantasy nightclub sequences are underpopulated, and you're aware that the heavy black shadows are there not so much to create a noirish ambience as to disguise how few people are on-screen. That underpopulation is felt most in the scenes in Dark's hospital room. In the BBC original, much of the action took place in a National Health ward, and the room full of patients made up an oddball Greek chorus. The private room of an American hospital doesn't allow for that sort of interaction. And there are other, subtler ways in which the material has been hurt by transplanting it from Britain to America.

The pop culture of "The Singing Detective" -- hard-boiled detective novels and big-band pop -- was distinctly American in flavor. I don't mean that there weren't British big bands or that every British mystery was set in a cozy country village. But the appropriation from one culture (America) to another (England) emphasized the artificiality of the fantasies in which Michael Gambon's Marlow indulged.

The big-band standards have been replaced in Gordon's version by echoey early rock 'n' roll like Conway Twitty's "Make Believe" (the sound of a man attempting to mountain-climb the abyss). There's certainly enough of a ghostly quality in that music for the substitution to work, but it winds up feeling like one more example of contemporary pop culture's ironic recycling. The songs in the original were the songs of the hero's childhood. Dan Dark's predilection for pop music made before he was born is just a quirk.

And that choice points out the miscasting of Downey and, as his estranged wife, Robin Wright Penn. They are simply too young for the bitterness and weariness of these characters to carry as much weight as they are asked to bear. It's not that they're bad; Downey is an amazing actor. But like everything else in the movie, their cynicism feels like a conceit that has not been transubstantiated into dramatic flesh. It means nothing when Downey tells Penn that her beauty is fading, because she doesn't have an age mark on her. It was cruel and cutting when Michael Gambon spoke the same words to Janet Suzman, because there was at least the ghost of truth behind them.

Gordon has assembled an amazing cast. In addition to Downey and Penn, there are Jeremy Northam as Dark's bête noire, Carla Gugino as his mother, Adrien Brody and Jon Polito as two hoods out of Dark's novel, Alfre Woodard and Saul Rubinek as doctors, Katie Holmes as a young nurse, and Mel Gibson as the hospital psychiatrist. (Gibson purchased the rights to Potter's script as a getting-out-of-jail present for Downey.) None of them are bad. But with the exception of Rubinek, as a big-shot doctor whose disinterested distraction passes for bedside manner, and Katie Holmes, whose doe-eyed ripeness is perfect, none of them could make me forget the original actors. Gibson, who works hard and well with Downey, has it worst of anyone, being outfitted in a bald wig and thick eyeglasses that make him look like a myopic Elmer Fudd.

Keith Gordon has been a charming actor in pictures like "Dressed to Kill" and "Back to School." But none of the films he has directed (or at least the ones I've seen) has convinced me he's a filmmaker. He has no discernible talent for imagery or dramatic momentum. He favors adaptations, and most of his work sits on the screen as concepts that have never achieved any semblance of life. They are the works of an ambitious student who has not yet graduated past student ambition. At the end of the original "Singing Detective," you felt as if you were looking back at a vast landscape so fully imagined you could enter it. Every moment of the preceding hours had fallen perfectly into place. This "Singing Detective" is like surveying a renovation that ran out of money and inspiration. It's no place you'd want to live.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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