The Singing Detective
Directed by Keith Gordon. Starring Robert Downey Jr., Robin Wright Penn, Mel Gibson, Jeremy Northam, Katie Holmes, Adrien Brody, Jon Polito, Carla Gugino, Saul Rubinek, Alfre Woodard. (2003, R, 109 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Dec. 5, 2003
The question that arises upon watching The Singing Detective is what possessed these filmmakers to mess with an already proven success. By all accounts – including those from Dennis Potter devotees, television historians, and general fans of challenging narrative material – the six-part series produced by the BBC in 1986 is not only the authoritative screen adaptation of Potter’s vision but also ranks among television history’s finest hours. Yet Potter must have felt the need existed for a big-screen adaptation of his work, for he whittled down the material by two-thirds and completed the screenplay for the feature-length movie before his death in 1994. Produced by Mel Gibson’s Icon Entertainment (Gibson also appears onscreen as a nearly unrecognizable psychiatrist wearing a bald cap and thick-lensed eyeglasses), the film has the feel of a post-rehab gift from Mel to star Robert Downey Jr. And that’s the problem that seeps in throughout this new version of The Singing Detective: The movie perpetually feels as if it were a good idea that was never fully thought through. The film’s casting is extraordinary, and there is something extra-narratively appropriate about seeing the post-rehab Downey playing the story’s titular writer, who is plagued by a painful and debilitating skin disease that turns all his flesh into a grotesque coat of oozing scales. The disease makes any physical contact with others excruciating, while the writer’s brain dances wildly among fantasies and hallucinations in which he remembers aspects of his childhood, inserts himself into the storylines of his pulp detective novels, and retreats into the solace of old songs from the Fifties. Even though the viewer is effectively dragged into the delusional writer’s world in which it’s hard to tell the difference between what’s real and what’s not, there is also another level to the film which feels completely artificial and contrived. The sets look only half decorated, some of the characters’ venom feels undeserved for people so young, and the psychiatric scenes deliver neat and unshaded assessments of the writer’s Oedipal problems. Only Rubinek as one of the doctors and Holmes as a pert and naive young nurse whose job it is to grease up the suffering writer’s body strike the right tone with their performances. Otherwise, director Keith Gordon turns in another one of his flatfooted literary adaptations (Waking the Dead, Mother Night). There’s definitely a certain fascination hovering about The Singing Detective, but after seeing the movie, that fascination turns to perverse dread.