The Singing Detective, Starring Robert Downey Jr, Mel Gibson, and Robin Penn Wright, Directed by Keith Gordon, Icon Productions, 2003
The worst aspect of this thin Hollywood adaptation of the amazing 1986 miniseries is that Dennis Potter, the original author, wrote it. Like the flip Steve Martin version of Potter’s Pennies from Heaven, Potter’s darkly British sensibilities lose something, something important, something vital, when American filmmakers get their mitts into him.
The original British television miniseries starred the almost frighteningly talented Michael Gambon as pulp mystery writer Philip E. Marlow. In the hospital with psoriatic arthropathy, a crippling skin and joints disease, Marlow hallucinates and remembers his past in the Welsh countryside. These hallucinations are tied up with his memories, his near paralytic life in hospital, and the plot of his first novel, The Singing Detective.
Potter elegantly wove these stories together, layering childhood impressions over adult experience, then transmuting that base metal into detective gold. The six-episode, seven-hour program gingerly took its time with Marlow’s memories, his psychotherapy at the hands of Dr. Gibbon, and the subtle changes in his physical state. Gambon’s makeup, in those somewhat more primitive days and budgets, was truly frightening, a grotesquerie of discolored almost melting skin and hair that hung in greased tendrils.
The newer version starts off on the wrong note by pointlessly changing Marlow’s name to the far too kitschy Dan Dark. (I simply loathe gimmicky character names, names that are overtly suggestive and emblematic; the choice of Marlow in the first one works as literary reference rather than character sketch in nomenclature.) The lovely time period of Potter’s original, modern day for modern day and late forties for the detective story, worked for its noir considerations, as well as providing it with a panoply of coyly suggestive swing numbers. Our Hollywood tale is set in modern day for modern day scenes, and the detective story takes place in some almost ambiguously shifting forties and fifties era replete with swing and early Elvis style tunes.
But what is most repellent in the newer version is Robert Downey Jr., an actor I actually believe to be quite talented. In the right film. Simply put, this isn’t even remotely Downey’s forte. Incapable of lip synching his way through the Bee Bop A Lulu part of his character, Downey is likewise just not up to snuff when it comes to delivering old school patter. Too many of his tough guy lines lilt creamily on his lips and his smirks are that of the class clown, not the bitter old pro. He is far too vain an actor, too in love with his own looks, to allow the makeup artists to disfigure him in any sizable way. Where Gambon looked half melted and slimed, Downey’s hair remains fashionably coiffed, even when we’re supposed to believe he’s been in a hospital bed in a feverish paralysis for three months.
The brightest spot acting wise in the picture was Mel Gibson as Dr. Gibbon. It almost looks as if the director had wanted to go with Robin Williams, but settled for Gibson, then opted to bury him in the leftover makeup Downey spurned. His hair covered under a bald headpiece with stray comb-over action, Gibson peers out from behind owly thick glasses, his eyes enormous fried eggs, and murmurs over half of his lines. His performance is a wonderfully short leash for an actor all too prone to chew the scenery with the biggest Olivien hams.
A few characters are dragged in from the British show for no real reason. The modern day Mark Binney in Dark’s paranoid delusions about his screenplay, for example. Or the one woman who exists for all of two minutes merely to be gunned down. Dark’s tearful collapse on her corpse is patently unbelievable in this frame of reference. My two favorite minor characters survive the transaction intact, the mysterious heavies who grow post-modernly angsty by film’s end, hijacking the author to demand answers. It seems they’ve grown tired of their hackneyed roles and want the author to fill in their backstory a bit. Adrien Brody and Coen Brother’s regular Jon Polito are deliciously fun here.
As is true with Potter’s work, the boy’s are the only game in town worth discussing. Female characters are relatively thin portraits. Katie Holmes shows up in a tidbit roll of nurse whose sole feature of note is the line “I’m going to have to lift your penis to grease around it.” Likewise Robin Penn Wright’s waste of talent in the role as Dark’s wife Nicola.
Even more peculiar is the film’s lack of music. I don’t mean the lack of songs per se, as there are any number of what seem like pointless diversions into song and dance numbers. I mean incidental mood setting music. It seems a peculiar directorial choice to have a movie so devoid of soundtrack, especially when songs make up the lifeblood of the original. It’s one of Potter’s somewhat overworked elements, at least in other productions, the segueway from doctor’s prognosticating ailments to a kooky and camp danceathon to “Dem Bones” and the like, and here it just seems another undercooked ingredient in a ptomaine plate. Combine that with the lack of ominous string intonings as Dark strolls down a dark alley and it’s a recipe for disaster.
Crushing seven hours down to just over one and a half makes a mish mash out of only the broadest strokes possible of storyline. This screenplay is a shambles, a sprint through childhood, infidelity, authorial confessions, psychotherapy, mystery conventions, and disease that never has the time to give any one of these subjects the time it deserves.
Do yourself a real favor and skip this last work of Potter’s, when his pancreatic cancer’s treatment with liquid morphine had clearly sapped his ability to tell shit from Shinola, and track down the real thing, the original. It’ll take you the better part of a week to get through, each episode a wrenching, unsettling experience, but you’ll come out of it a better person. At the very least, you will have seen one of the towering tele-cinematic achievements of the twentieth century, perhaps the most under-recognized work of motion picture art in existence.