Shortly before his death in 1991, celebrated British scribe Dennis Potter completed a feature-length, U.S.-set transposition of his crowning television achievement, the eight-hour "The Singing Detective" (1986). The onscreen arrival of that text softens that original BBC version's bilious heart, a tactic that yields mixed results.

Shortly before his death in 1991, celebrated British scribe Dennis Potter completed a feature-length, U.S.-set transposition of his crowning achievement television achievement, the extraordinary eight-hour “The Singing Detective” (1986). The belated onscreen arrival of that text reveals Potter considerably softening that original BBC version’s bilious heart, a tactic that yields mixed results in director Keith Gordon’s capable hands. Too knotty a proposition to tempt mainstream crossover auds, pic should nonetheless attract solid interest on the arthouse circuit for its multilayered story conceit, novelty as a quasi-musical and Robert Downey Jr.’s return to active thesping duty (again) in a particularly fine turn.

As he did in the Brit mini “Pennies From Heaven,” Potter’s “Detective” has its unglamorized, real-world characters breaking into lip-synch song hits of the day to escape from their desperate, sometimes grotesque or sordid circumstances. And just as Herbert Ross’ Hollywood “Pennies” (a 1981 Christmas flop, but one held in greater esteem since) both benefited and suffered from its compacted Americanization, so Gordon’s “Detective” — albeit on a much smaller production scale — gains new resonances while losing considerable nuance and complexity. It’s also more predictable, even trite in the end, because Potter opts to make the original version’s voyage toward bittersweet catharsis much more upbeat — a decision quite likely influenced by the failure of “Pennies” in the U.S., which many attributed to its unremitting bleakness.

Still, his genius for wrapping black humor, poignancy and fantasy in utterly original story concepts lends this “Detective” an immediate fascination that doesn’t begin wearing off for some time. The film’s principal tonal contrast is introduced straight away as the pickup, boffing and bathtub-drowning murder of a prostitute, set in a clearly fictive 1950s noir universe, is jarringly interrupted by our first view of present-day Daniel Dark (Downey) — a man horribly afflicted by some sort of extreme psoriasis-type condition, his skin so cracked and lesionous that any movement is excruciating.

But it’s quite possible that Dark himself was excruciating long before his every waking moment grew likewise. Generally misanthropic, with a particularly nasty misogynist bent, he “accepts” his painful hospitalization not at all — making life hell for the medical staff, raging against persons both present and absent. (He also refuses to take tranquilizers, suggesting more than a little masochism at work.)

Estranged wife Nicola (Robin Wright Penn) is a particular target for venom, and it’s taken her three months to hazard a first bedside visit. Called in to deal with this incorrigible problem patient, the chief of staff (Alfre Woodard in a one-scene role) insists he get psychiatric help, saying, “You will never get on top of your illness until you deal with your bitterness.”

Thus Dark lands in the office of Dr. Gibbon — producer Mel Gibson, almost unrecognizable in a bald cap, geek specs and a wheedling, folksy Walter Brennan-type voice. The eccentric, goading doc provokes Dark toward disquieting childhood memories, most pertaining to the faithless mother (Carla Gugino) who abandoned her husband and dragged her son off to L.A., where she resorted to prostitution. Ergo protag’s lifelong equation of femininity with allure, deception and whoredom.

But even as his illness begins to improve, Dark still loses himself in delusional other worlds, notably the titular detective novel he’s published — and now fantasizes living out. It “stars” himself (minus the “human pizza” skin) as crooner-sleuth Dan Dark, Nicola as femme fatale Nina, two unshakeable federal agents and/or hitmen (Adrien Brody, Jon Polito) and a suave, shady figure called Mark Binney (Jeremy Northam). Latter hires hard-boiled Dark (whom Downey lends specifically Bogie-esque speech and gestures) to investigate a prostie’s killing. But this appears to be a ruse, with Dark chosen for frame-up.

Back in the real world, hospitalized Dark begins to meld this narrative with imaginings of what Nicola is really up to: Is she scheming to steal his life’s work, perhaps even in cahoots with a “Binney” of her own?

More, the scenario generously incorporates songs from the ’50s radio era of shlock pop (“How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?”) and early rock ‘n’ roll (“Flip, Flop & Fly,” “Poison Ivy”) by artists such as Johnny Ray, Eddie Cochran, Conway Twitty, the Chordettes and so forth.

While several of these are simply delivered by gumshoe Dan onstage in his nightclub-singer mode, the more imaginative, elaborate numbers involve hospital staff and other “real” characters. Early on, a team of doctors breaks into an incongruous “At the Hop.” Probably pic’s comic highlight (as it was the original miniseries’) is scene where one discomfitingly pretty young nurse (Katie Holmes) “greases up” the bedbound Dark’s flesh, prompting an embarrassing erection — flanked here by a chorus of lingerie-clad femmes slinking to “Mr. Sandman.”

Those novelty tunes don’t quite summon the ironic charge that ’40s torch songs did in the ’86 version. Naturally, the screenplay’s reduction of a concept from eight to two hours sacrifices some complexity and breadth en route. A particular debit is that the noir “mystery,” such a potent engine before, now feels confusedly rushed. The shift to an American setting, however, works just fine.

Most important change is tonal, as worked out in both script and lead casting. Downey is naturally ingratiating (sometimes to an indulgent fault, though that’s not the case here), and Wright Penn always projects an innate empathy. Unlike Janet Suzman’s far pricklier spouse in the BBC serial, there’s never any doubt here that Nicola has her husband’s welfare in mind — one dimension of useful ambiguity lost.

Michael Gambon’s titanic turn made Dark far more deeply poisoned in spirit, his eventual pathos much harder-won. Downey’s terrific performance works on its own terms, proving once again that this actor is at his very best when securely yoked to a character conception that leaves no room for show-off riffing. (On that score, dad Downey Sr. and James Toback have been his most criminally indulgent directors.) No doubt some viewers will see the role as an eerily apt metaphor for the actor’s own all-too-public struggles with recurrent personal problems.

It’s Potter’s choice to let the sun duly shine in, full-on, in this revamp’s last act. Cynicism and despair aren’t always required for “art’s sake,” natch. Still, one can’t help thinking that this softened windup skirts dangerously close to ye olden “Well, now that we’ve dug up my repressed memories … gee, Doctor, I can walk again!!” kitsch. Lightweight cumulative impact is underlined by having Downey himself sing and play “In My Dreams” onscreen during final credits.

Support cast is excellent, with Gibson clearly having fun playing way against type. While budgetary resources appear modest given project’s nature (it was once expected to be an A-list, $60 million production), Gordon again demonstrates the intelligent craftsmanship that marked such ambitious prior efforts as “Mother Night,” “A Midnight Clear” and “The Chocolate War.”

Production designer Patricia Norris and lenser Tom Richmond do a fine job separating (then overlapping) pic’s primary milieus, with the hospital scenes marked by harsh fluorescent glare, the noir ones by heavy shadows, the childhood flashbacks bathed in a slight golden hue. Tech package is smoothly handled.

The Singing Detective

Production

An Icon Prods. presentation of a Haft Enterprises production. Produced by Mel Gibson, Steven Haft, Bruce Davey. Executive producer, Stan Wlodkowski. Co-producers, Jane Potter, Sarah Potter, Robert Potter. Directed by Keith Gordon. Screenplay, Dennis Potter, adapted from his original television series.

Crew

Camera (color), Tom Richmond; editor, Jeff Wishengrad; music supervisor, Ken Weiss; production/costume designer, Patricia Norris; set decorator, Jan K. Bergstrom; makeup effects, Greg Cannom, Keith Vanderlan; choreographers, Jacqui, Bill Landrum; sound (Dolby Digital), John Nutt; sound designer, James Lebrecht; assistant director, Eric Heffron; casting, Denise Chamian. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), Jan. 17, 2003. Running time: 109 MIN.

With

Dan Dark - Robert Downey Jr. Nicola/Nina/ Blonde - Robin Wright Penn Dr. Gibbon - Mel Gibson Mark Binney - Jeremy Northam Nurse Mills - Katie Holmes First Hood - Adrien Brody Second Hood - Jon Polito Betty Dark/Hooker - Carla Gugino Skin Specialist - Saul Rubinek Chief of Staff - Alfre Woodard
With: Amy Aquino, David Dorfman, Eddie Jones, Lily Knight, Clyde Kusatsu, Earl C. Poitier, Don Fischer, Andy Umberger, David Denman.

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