In the American movie version of The Singing Detective, as in the 1980s six-part British television masterpiece it apes with a frenzy, a writer of hard-boiled crime novels (Robert Downey Jr.) lies in a hospital bed, wracked by a crippling attack of psoriatic arthropathy that leaves his skin flayed and his hands curled to uselessness. In a twilight of pain and rage, he imagines he’s in a hard-boiled crime novel himself, investigating the murder of a prostitute in 1950s Los Angeles. In his head and on the screen, fictional scenes overlap with memories from his unhappy childhood. Real people in his life play the roles of characters. And the patient can’t tell whether the 1950s rock & roll songs lip-synched and danced to in front of his eyes (and ours) are real or imagined. In such extremes, a good ex-wife (Robin Wright Penn, lovely) and a good psychiatrist (Mel Gibson, hammy) are lifesavers.
If only making sense of this strange tale from the crypt were as simple as getting a rudimentary grip on the slippery plot! The late British TV maverick Dennis Potter, genius of his medium, not only wrote the original (which starred a towering Michael Gambon and was set in 1940s England) but also completed this screenplay two years before his death in 1994. And so, in a way, the trickster bequeathed to his artistic heirs the impossible task of devising something new to match the singularity of what already exists – now on DVD and thus available to exactly the American audience who missed it the first time around.
”This Singing Detective” is no ”Psycho” redo, but still – it’s no ”Singing Detective,” either. Indie and TV director Keith Gordon (”Waking the Dead”) references original director Jon Amiel’s work with an imitative acolyte’s admiration that offers no new insights. And the cast throw themselves into their retro conceits, particularly Penn, Adrien Brody as a spiffy hood, and Jeremy Northam as the embodiment of masculine shadiness. One more thing: Robert Downey Jr. is great in a role no one less magnetically reckless would dare approach.