Weaker of the pair, and stronger on deja vu, is “Karaoke,” with Albert Finney as a typically haunted, physically wracked (in this case by booze) Potter hero attracted to a beautiful woman and unable to distinguish fiction from reality. TV writer Daniel Feeld (Finney) is quarreling with his director (Richard E. Grant) and indulged by his tyro producer (Anna Chancellor). He starts hearing dialogue from his current project (a thriller also called “Karaoke”) in the mouth of cockney looker Sandra Sollars (Saffron Burrows) one evening in a trendy restaurant.
TX: TX:Filmed in Gloucestershire and Herefordshire, and at Pinewood and Twickenham Studios, England, by Whistling Gypsy Prods. Executive producers, Peter Ansorge (Channel 4), Michael Wearing (BBC1); producers, Kenith Trodd, Rosemarie Whitman; director, Renny Rye; writer, Dennis Potter; Following Sandra to a karaoke bar where she’s a hostess, the permanently sozzled Daniel realizes his script is taking on a life of its own. Or is it? Told by doctors he has only two months to live, Daniel tries to sort out the tangled lives of his characters’ real-life doubles as the pulp plot takes control.
Potter already traveled this semi-autobiographical road with “Blackeyes” ( 1989) and the subsequent “Secret Friends” and “Midnight Movie,” not to mention the earlier “Singing Detective.” This time, however, there’s an empty feel to the barbed dialogue, with technique almost entirely deputizing for substance. In a role that could equally have been played by Alan Bates, Finney harrumphs and overplays to occasionally entertaining but finally uninvolving effect. Best stuff is from the supports, with Grant a waspishly self-absorbed director, Hywel Bennett a seedy Cockney thug, and Julie Christie (in a rare TV role) adding a touch of quiet class as Grant’s rich, cuckolded wife.
Director Renny Rye, who helmed Potter’s “Lipstick on Your Collar” and the weak “Midnight Movie,” doesn’t bring much shape to the already rambling script. He’s more successful with “Cold Lazarus,” a futuristic fable set in 2368 in which Daniel’s cryogenically frozen brain is caught in a three-way battle between two American tycoons (Diane Ladd’s science center boss and Henry Goodman’s global TV baron) and a funds-starved British scientist (Frances de la Tour), all of whom want to exploit his memories of a more emotion-filled age.
Though the story is set in the future, Potter’s real target is the growing crassness of commercialized TV in the present. While much of the humor is obvious, and the content also largely familiar from past Potter works, the writing, overall, is sharper than in “Karaoke.” De la Tour’s confident delivery of the dialogue and her face-offs with the super-sleazy Goodman give “Lazarus” a stature “Karaoke” never obtains with Finney’s less focused playing.
Christopher Hobbs’ sets and Charlotte Holdich’s costumes create a deliberately high-tack future — kind of “Dune” dressed by Liberace — which clearly signals that sci-fi realism isn’t the main point. Christopher Gunning’s score cleverly apes the genre, and the digital f/x for Daniel’s memories are fine. Remi Adefarasin’s lensing has more overall personality than Ashley Rowe’s for “Karaoke.”
The Museum of Television & Radio is showing “Karaoke” and “Cold Lazarus” in repertory on Thursdays at 5:15 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays at 1:30 p.m. through Oct. 6. Call (310) 786-1000 for info.