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The Singing Detective

Back in 1986 PBS audiences were startled by Dennis Potter's odd, complex and entertaining six-part series called "The Singing Detective" about a man suffering from painful skin lesions and debilitating arthritis who found solace only when he entered a world of his own fevered creation. Shortly before he died in 1994, Potter re-imagined his story for a larger, more American audience. Robert Downey Jr. stars as Dan Dark, a crime novelist and malcontent afflicted with psoriatic arthropathy. With his skin resembling a pizza, he lies in a hospital bed unable to move but his mind allows him to escape. He recreates one of his B-list novels and imagines himself in film noir Los Angeles as the tough-talking private dick who doubles as a crooner in a dance band. Pain and medications affect his pulp fiction imagination, however, and soon he can't tell what's real and what's not. His state worsens as childhood traumas invade his feverish world to the point that people and events from the past haunt his present. Was his mother really murdered? Is his ex-wife really trying to steal his screenplay? Story elements collide and people break into song and dance when you least expect it. Walls disappear and spotlights flash on raucously choreographed dancers who snatch Dark from the fluorescent hell of the hospital ward and transport him into his tortured fantasyland. It all sounds very interesting but at one-fourth its original seven hours' length, The Singing Detective only skims the surface of what is actually a complex character study. There's pizzazz aplenty but not enough to make a fulfilling movie. Despite the excellent supporting cast -- including Adrien Brody and Jon Polito as heavies who commit murder, Jeremy Northam as a conniving seducer, and an unrecognizable Mel Gibson as Dark's shrink -- this film is little more than a throwaway tale of a vulgar man with a paranoid, violent imagination who attempts to redeem himself thanks to an unconvincing truce with his ex-wife, played by Robin Wright Penn. Downey Jr. may charm his way through it all but he makes the film only slightly worth watching.

Stars: 2 out of 5