Almost inevitably, great exercises in style deteriorate, through imitation and repetition, into mere stylization. So it is with The Singing Detective. Yes, Dennis Potter wrote the screen adaptation of his famous mini-series, which may be the best television show ever made. And, yes, all concerned with the film have labored on it with obvious love and respect. And, yes, all the TV show's moves are honorably replicated. Potter's hero, Dan Dark, is immobilized, in searing pain, by crippling psoriasis (as the writer himself was). Dark escapes into a fantasy world, imagining himself the hero of a movie based on an old pulp detective novel. He is also haunted by his past, which made him an angry misogynist-cum-misanthrope. From time to time, the cast breaks into hilariously ironic song.
But somehow, by a narrow margin, the film doesn't quite make it. Potter recolored his work a little more sunnily, and it is, perhaps, too compressed; it needs TV's room to digress. And the director, Keith Gordon, doesn't really recapture '50s Los Angeles, where Potter reset his flashbacks. They feel perfunctory (and underbudgeted). Finally, Robert Downey Jr., who works hard as Dark, just doesn't have the weight, age and rage Michael Gambon brought to the role.
On the other hand, Mel Gibson, wearing a bald wig and a manner both fussy and insistent, is wonderful as the psychiatrist who restores Dark to a semblance of health. Robin Wright Penn is equally compelling as Dark's estranged, emotionally ambiguous wife. And it's good to be in touch, even in a somewhat diminished form, with one of the most potent works of modern pop culture. --By Richard Schickel