'Detective' goes off-key

Shorter isn't sweeter in new version of Dennis Potter's classic miniseries.

If you admired Dennis Potter's miniseries "The Singing Detective" as much as I did when it aired on American television in 1986, you'll be excited to know Mr. Potter also prepared a feature-film version before his death in 1994.

It has significant changes - updating the story from the '40s to the '50s, changing the location from England to Los Angeles, brightening the ending, and renaming the hero Dan Dark instead of Philip Marlow.

It's shorter, too - trimmed from almost seven hours (seen in weekly installments) to a mere 104 minutes. And therein lies a problem with the movie.

"The Singing Detective" is an expansive tale, layering at least three levels of storytelling into a hauntingly complex narrative. Condensing this novelistic material into the length of a standard Hollywood feature is like abridging, say, "The Brothers Karamazov" into a paperback slim enough for your back pocket.

The scope and sweep of the yarn have been drastically reduced, and while director Keith Gordon tries to sustain its delirious energy through a restless and dreamlike visual style, the results are disappointing - as they were when Hollywood adapted another Potter miniseries, "Pennies From Heaven," in 1981.

Robert Downey Jr. plays Dan Dark, a mystery writer whose physical and mental health are under assault from a skin condition that lands him in an L.A. hospital. There he retreats from reality via daydreams, hallucinations, and musings on his next novel, about a private eye investigating a series of criminal events.

Dark is so depressed that his doctors send him to a psychiatrist - an idea he fiercely resists, treating the well-meaning shrink (played by Mel Gibson) with sarcasm and contempt. But eventually the doctor gets him thinking about past events that made him into the troubled person he is today. This mental voyage joins with Dark's actual life and detective-story ideas to produce the movie's complicated fabric.

Mr. Gordon's version of "The Singing Detective" has an impressive cast, including a frenzied Downey as Dark, an unrecognizable Gibson as the psychiatrist, and a versatile Robin Wright Penn as three women who inhabit Dark's life and imagination.

Gordon is a gifted filmmaker - his credits include "Mother Night," a brilliant adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's novel - as well as a former actor. Here he fails to pull off his ambitious project successfully, though, substituting a dizzying battery of cinematic ideas for the deep emotional involvement that might have brought the story to life.

Potter's trademark devices are all present, including the way characters burst into songs lip-synced to vintage recordings on the sound track. But here they don't quite jell. You're likely to leave the movie in a jangled state that's more like Dark's agitation at the beginning of his story than the coherent calm he finally achieves at the end.

Rated R; contains sex, violence, and vulgar language.

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