British playwright Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective is one of the Holy Grails of television drama—the legendary product of a creative mind laboring under intense afflictions. Potter suffered all his life from a rare, crippling skin-and-joint disease, psoriatic arthropathy, which made Job’s trials seem like cheesecake. The hero of his series lies in the hospital with a similar illness, hallucinating as his temperature spikes, and blurring the boundaries between reality and fiction. A two-bit crime writer, he imagines himself a noir-esque “detective who warbles,” enmeshed in an obscure plot with some nasty thugs and his ex-wife, whom he converts into a murderous femme fatale. As if things weren’t complicated enough, every once in a while the characters—both hospital staff and gangsters—break into song, lip-synching the lyrics to golden oldies in outré musical numbers that provide strangely comic relief to the situation’s relentless sadness.
Eight million viewers tuned in when The Singing Detective first aired on BBC television (it later enjoyed a brief, successful run on PBS). I was not one of them. So I can’t compare that reputedly glorious original with director Keith Gordon’s film version, from Potter’s own screenplay. Robert Downey Jr. (whose full-body makeup transforms him into a “human pizza”) stars as Dan Dark, the tormented crime novelist with a skin condition. Robin Wright Penn plays his beleaguered ex-wife and Mel Gibson (one of the film’s co-producers) is surprisingly effective as a Birkenstock-clad hospital psychiatrist bent on unraveling Dark’s problems. Adrien Brody and Jon Polito mug around as the two main hoods. Instead of London we have Los Angeles, and the fantasy musical numbers are set to doo-wopping American tunes from the 1950s.
Potter’s script is filled with ample doses of the brilliant parody and bitter humor that made his reputation. Downey’s lockjaw delivery makes most of it intelligible. (“There must be something you believe in,” a concerned nurse suggests to the despairing Dark. “Genocide,” he rattles off, “infanticide, insecticide, suicide . . . etc.”) The dramatist’s simultaneous send-ups of both the medical profession and the invalid mentality will give succor to anyone who’s recently endured the indignity of a hospital bed. The problems come in the shadow world, where everything’s a jumble, where Dark’s compositional strategy (“all clues and no solutions”) eventually becomes wearing, and Gordon’s direction can’t hold it all together. The musical numbers occasionally illuminate the characters’ inner lives (like the wet- dream version of “Mr. Sandman,” performed as a nubile nurse ministers to our patient), but just as often they seem extraneous, and the film’s happy ending rings false.