Robert Downey Jr. as Dan Dark in The Singing Detective. (courtesy photo)

A brooding author is healed by the powers of literary criticism

Disfigured and disabled by the skin and joint disease, psoriatic arthropy, Dan Dark (Downey) describes himself as "a human pizza." Stippled with pustules and crippled by his condition, he has been lying in a hospital bed for the past three months, an impatient patient, bitter, obnoxious, raging against his doctors, his nurses, his wife, and his fate. Dark is a novelist who can no longer even hold a pencil, but he broods over reworking his first book - a pulp fiction about pimps, thugs, prostitutes, and murder called The Singing Detective - into a movie. The Singing Detective that we see on the screen crosscuts among Dark in the hospital, scenes from his novel, and flashbacks to his childhood. Occasionally, Dark reimagines his dismal circumstances transformed into an elaborate production number of 1950s rock 'n' roll songs such as "At the Hop," "Poison Ivy," and "Mr. Sandman." Keith Gordon's new adaptation of British author Dennis Potter's singular screenplay is like nothing so much as Potter's own Pennies From Heaven, in which a bleak Depression drama periodically morphs into a cheery sort of Busby Berkeley musical. The Singing Detective is an amalgam of Samuel Beckett, Dashiell Hammett, and MTV.

At first, it is all as confusing to the viewer as it to Dark himself. "What's going on?" asks one of the thuggish characters within his pulp fiction, and the author has no answer. Dark's wife (Penn) accuses him of using his illness "as a weapon against anything clean, honest, and loving," and, on the verge of bilious solipsism, Downey's Dark is as blocked and unsympathetic a leading character as is likely to appear in a Hollywood movie. The hokey sequences of metafictional film noir are much less compelling than the drama of psoriatic Dark railing against betrayal by his own body. And the swatches of autobiography - young Dark growing up beside a gas station in the desert and fleeing with his mother to Los

The Singing Detective

Dir. Keith Gordon; writ. Dennis Potter; feat. Robert Downey Jr., Robin Wright Penn, Jeremy Northam, Katie Holmes, Adrien Brody, Jon Polito, Mel Gibson (R)
Angeles - seem gratuitous. However, using literary criticism of Dark's own novel as the key to psychoanalysis, linking the author's preoccupation with murdered prostitutes to guilty resentment of his own errant mother, a psychotherapist named Gordon (Gibson) begins to free him from the forces tyrannizing his mind. "Chronic illness is a shelter," he observes, pulling his patient out into the light. Dark's skin clears up, his temperament improves, and the film becomes coherent. Gibson might have cured Marcel Proust - who spent most of his last two decades in a sickbed, scribbling his magnum opus - of chronic illness, and turned him into another sanguine citizen of the modern, antiseptic world.

A six-hour version of The Singing Detective was produced by the BBC and televised in 1984. Before he died in 1994, Potter reconceived his work as a theatrical feature. The revised screenplay, used by Keith Gordon for this new film, differs not only in structure but also in its conclusion. It offers an appropriate vision for the New World nation of 300 million therapies. In contrast to Britain's constitutional dourness, it presents a very American arc, in which even Dark can brighten, in which positive thinking triumphs over anything, even blotchy skin. •

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