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The Singing Detective

There's a laundry list of reasons why director Keith Gordon's 2003 remake of Dennis Potter's brilliant The Singing Detective is an abject failure. For starters, it should simply have never been reworked as a feature film at all — trimming director Jon Amiel's profound, complex, and delightfully entertaining 1984 BBC miniseries from its original six-hour length to a mere 108 minutes was a fool's errand. In Amiel's Detective, Michael Gambon turned in a stunning central performance as ironically named pulp novelist Philip Marlow, afflicted by a debilitating case of psoriasis and keeping his grip on sanity by fantasizing a hard-boiled detective thriller and remembering his childhood — intertwining dames, guns, and hoodlums with '40s big-band standards, his family life in a small, English coal-mining town, and a Freudian fusion of his dreams, frustrations, and desires. It was intricate, humanistic, and yet fanciful — and one of the best things to ever be broadcast on television. Potter himself wrote the script for this abridged American version of Detective because he hated the Hollywood remake of his other great miniseries Pennies from Heaven, so it's especially sad that the film (made after his death in 1994) is so terrible. Part of the problem lies with the casting — Gambon's Marlow was angry and bitter but still charming, a man obviously lashing out because of deep pain, both physical and psychic. His tirades occasionally upset the more sensitive around him, but it was the snarl of a wounded animal — the slow unfolding of his story though his memories and his increasingly metaphoric (and therapeutic) detective fantasies served to make the viewer appreciate just how much pain Marlow was carrying, and created a reason to care about him. In Gordon's film, Robert Downey Jr.'s take on the character — whose name is changed, oddly, to Dan Dark — is less sympathetic. He's not sympathetic at all, in fact, coming off as far too bitter for someone of his age and circumstance (Downey seems to be a good ten years too young for the role) as well as a misogynist and a bigot. As good an actor as he is — and the film is populated with excellent actors, including Jeremy Northam, Robin Wright Penn, Adrien Brody, Jon Polito, and a bald-wig-clad Mel Gibson as Dark's therapist — Downey's ill-served by the truncated nature of the script. The miniseries' format gave Potter the time to chart Marlow's slow progress back to health, his skin gradually clearing as he exorcised his psychological demons. But here, Dark's journey comes at far too quick of a clip, with his skin clearing and his emotional issues resolving at a breakneck pace. Everything in this film, in fact, suffers from its abbreviation — symbols and metaphors that were allowed to subtly unfold in the original are slapped onto the screen with such a lack of finesse as to be intellectually insulting, and even the visual aspect of the movie is inelegant and garish. It's a waste of so much talent (including Gordon, whose track record includes The Chocolate War, Mother Night, and Waking the Dead) and an unfortunate epitaph for a world-class writer. Paramount's DVD release of The Singing Detective offers a very clean, bright anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with solid Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 Surround audio. On board is a very good commentary track by director Keith Gordon — no matter what you think of the film, this is a great track, extremely entertaining and informative. Would that all films — especially good ones — came with wall-to-wall, scene-specific commentaries like this one. Trailers for other Paramount releases, keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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