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The Singing Detective

Same old song and dance

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In The Singing Detective, a hospitalized mystery writer, scarred and crippled by full-body psoriasis, snarls sardonically at the wicked world as he imagines and re-imagines the vivification of his best novel -- a '50s detective thriller -- while every now and then, the doctors, nurses, fictional characters and even the writer himself break out in song and dance, lip-synching to plaintive pop and blues classics like "Doggie in the Window," "Mr. Sandman" and Big Joe Turner's "Flip Flop."

And yet we've seen it all before.

But not because Dennis Potter wrote this story as a virtuoso seven-part BBC drama in 1986, nor because Potter wrote the Steve Martin vehicle Pennies from Heaven, nor because Robert Downey Jr., fresh off a hell of his own, plays writer Dan Dark, an embittered wordsmith with psychological ghosts that could turn a sheet white.

No, in the age of Being John Malkovich, this postmodern, pro-Freudian, anti-Hollywood prattle just doesn't resonate any more.

Directed handsomely by Keith Gordon (A Midnight Clear), with a screenplay curiously attributed solely to Potter (he died in 1994), this entertaining incarnation of The Singing Detective races to achieve in less than two hours what Potter and his irreplaceable star, Michael Gambon, did so thrillingly for almost seven.

Naturally, it all feels rushed: the boyhood flashbacks, where Danny sees his mother (Carla Gugino) screwing the man (Jeremy Northam) who co-owned a dismal desert gas station with Danny's father; the quintessential thugs (Adrien Brody, Jon Polito) in Dark's novel who stalk a warbling gumshoe (Downey again, doing Bogart, and actually singing, giftedly), who stalks the mysterious guy (Northam again) who stalked a murdered woman (Gugino again); the doctors and nurses (Katie Holmes among them) who hover over Dark; the shrink (an amusing Mel Gibson) who makes Dark realize that his novels retell his life (duuuuh!); and Danny's estranged wife (Robin Wright Penn), who may or may not be yet another disloyal bitch.

"Words make me hold my breath," Danny says. "Who knows what they're going to say, who knows where they've been." And with that, The Singing Detective asks us to nod sagely at what most people already know: that art imitates life, and vice versa, and that a good writer can do anything he bloody well pleases with words (for example, rescue himself).

To endure all of Danny's acrimony -- which Downey discharges with dour panache -- only to walk off happily into a fluorescent sunset, almost makes it seem like Gordon isn't serious about things. In the TV series, the songs, however delightful, intruded on the here-and-now of Gambon's palpable suffering. In Gordon's movie, they're gorgeously performed and rife with pointless meaning, so you anticipate them like a guilty pleasure. And in neither version is the novelist's roman à clef worth much, except for the wry moment when Brody and Polito wander out of their '50s noir scenario and into some veritable sunshine, which terrifies them so much that they try to shoot it dead.

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