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The Marlowe Man: Robert Downey Jr. plays a crime novelist with an overactive imagination in 'The Singing Detective.'

Farewell, My Epidermis

'The Singing Detective' is remade with Robert Downey Jr. as 'the human pizza'

By Richard von Busack

IN THE FILM version of the 1986 BBC TV series The Singing Detective, Robert Downey Jr. plays Dan Dark, who meets danger in the form of a beautiful woman and a repulsive skin disease. Dark, a hack writer with a vicious case of psoriatic arthropathy, is unable to move or write. The delusional patient, not quite sane from his pain medication, begins thinking out a new adventure of his detective/nightclub singer. While the 1986 version, "Philip E. Marlow," sang torch songs, Downey's Dark favors '50s vocal rock. In between gigs, the "Warbler" stumbles into a case of Commies and blackmailed atomic scientists, gunmen (Adrien Brody and Jon Polito) and a prostitute marked for death. But the real case--the one he's trying to forget--is teased out of him by a dowdy Midwestern psychiatrist (Mel Gibson). It's the big mystery he's been unable to solve.

The admirable Keith Gordon (Mother Night, Waking the Dead) directs this remake of Dennis Potter's famed show. The essential novelty of the story is almost conquered by the second-time-aroundness. The shock of the Freudian detective tale has diminished, and the switches from real life to fantasy numbers show signs of erosion after years of MTV. Since the music's been updated, this Singing Detective has to overcome some deep impressions left by David Lynch's career-long investigations into the uncanny side of sweet 1950s music.

Downey is a less bitter item than Michael Gambon, who originated the part. Gambon was more about the size of the Continental Op, and it was more than his skin that was crusty. Strangely, Downey's offscreen adventures haven't marked his face. What's left of his youth makes the scenes where he rails against the world more like adolescent discontent than middle-aged anguish.

Still, Downey looks dashing in the fantasy sequences, in the Eisenhower-era suits and fedoras. He does a few Bogart ticks, a murmur from the side of the mouth, the sudden fleer of the front teeth, but mostly he's tough enough on his own. Downey's arrogant dark eyes make you believe him when he acts like he doesn't give a damn, but in the musical sequence scored to "Mr. Sandman" he draws a genuine spark from Katie Holmes, who is bewilderingly pretty as the nurse. Robin Wright Penn stands out here, too, as Dark's estranged wife. Penn, lean and shrewd, doesn't soften her voice when she looks over Dark's body and judges, "What a disgusting disease." This is Penn's best work.

There can be no serious objection to a worthwhile story retold. But be warned, I'm also a huge fan of the screen adaptation of Potter's Pennies From Heaven, which most who saw the TV version can't abide. No doubt, there will be first-timers who will startled by Potter and Gordon's look at the gap between the sourness of life and the sweetness of pop music. Hard as it is to imagine, there are people out there whose skin doesn't prickle every time they hear the Lee Adler and the Harmonicats version of "Peg O' My Heart."

The Singing Detective (R; 109 min.), directed by Keith Gordon, written by Dennis Potter, photographed by Tom Richmond and starring Robert Downey Jr. and Robin Wright Penn, opens Friday at the Towne Theatre in San Jose.

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From the November 6-12, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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