Directed by Keith Gordon, starring Robert Downey Jr, Robin Wright Penn, Jeremy Northam, Katie Holmes and Mel Gibson.
With a screenplay adaptation penned by Dennis Potter himself, the movie of 'The Singing Detective' bills itself as a re-working of the Eighties television series, rather than a remake. And where the original interrogated the England of the Forties, the film relocates across the Atlantic and toys with gangster images of the Fifties, rock 'n' roll and all.
Dan Dark (Downey Jr), an unsuccessful writer recovering from a visibly painful skin condition, lies in a hospital bed and conjures a novel in his head. The viewer is introduced to three parallel worlds, rendered in jarringly different styles. On the most realistic level, with harsh lights and extreme close-ups, the protagonist's hellish recovery is explored. In tandem, the creation of his evolving fiction manifests itself as a series of film noir-ish hallucinations. And the author's memories of a disturbed childhood appear suffused with the unreal glow of clichéd nostalgia.
Director Gordon has been unafraid to take risks, revelling in the stylistic contrasts and jumping between genres in individual scenes. The deliberate artificiality of the Fifties episodes is heightened by the pulp fiction scenarios, stylised costumes and incomplete sets. And the musical numbers, featuring Dark's alter ego, the eponymous sleuth, aka The Warbler, are lip-synched and danced with energy if not exactly flair.
At the centre of the whole thing is Downey Jr's performance which just about manages to hold the various strands of delirium together. Had he an ounce less charisma, the project would very likely have fallen completely flat. As it is, a certain unevenness in the production can be overlooked, engaging as he is.
Meanwhile, other cast members appear to delight in the multiple roles the movie's structure affords. Jeremy Northam is good as a baddie while Katie Holmes is good in a typical good girl role. And Robin Wright Penn undergoes several bizarre incarnations, in keeping with the general strangeness of the proceedings. As Dark's estranged wife, she sparks off Downey Jr well and it is to both actors' credit that their bitter marital battle strikes the odd genuinely touching chord. But most surprising of all is Mel Gibson, a revelation, successfully keeping his irritating star persona in check under the prosthetic bald head of his quirky psychoanalyst.
Operating as a detective story with Dark uncovering truths about his past, the movie focuses on the sexual frustration and paranoid fantasies of its central character. The tone veers wildly between the seedy, the upbeat and the kitsch. 'The Singing Detective' is, in its entirety, perhaps more interesting than successful but nevertheless watchable throughout.