Clued in

The Singing Detective
Starting tomorrow at area theaters
Three reels out of four

The Singing Detective is notable on two fronts. It is the talented and troubled Robert Downey Jr.’s first major motion picture in three years — his last was Wonder Boys with Michael Douglas. And it is the film version of Dennis Potter’s highly praised BBC series of the mid-1980s.

Produced by Mel Gibson’s production company, Icon Pictures, it is not an easy film to watch at times. But it is also intelligent, entertaining and often wickedly funny.

Downey plays Dan Dark, a moderately successful crime novelist who suffers from psoriatic arthropathy, a crippling disease of the skin and bones. As he languishes in his hospital bed, his mind wanders in and out of reality. One of Dark’s favorite activities is exploring the world of his alter ego, the Singing Detective. Also named Dan Dark, the private eye’s new case involves a hooker who has been drowned by two thugs in a bathtub.

Meanwhile, the real Dark recalls painful memories with the help of eccentric but sympathetic psychiatrist Dr. Gibbon (Mel Gibson). After going through hell and back, Dark eventually makes peace with his troubled past and his skin clears up.

The Singing Detective is filmed from Potter’s original screenplay, which was completed a couple of years before he died in 1994. Although strongly influenced by the series, Potter intended more a reimagining than an adaptation. One of the main differences from the original is that this version is set in the United States instead of Great Britain. This is entirely Potter’s doing and not merely a device concocted by commercial-minded producers.

Potter wanted to make the film, especially the noir sections, a more quintessentially post-war American experience. This is especially evident in the use of the music, which skews more toward early rock ‘n’ roll instead of the big band sound of the BBC show.

For anyone not familiar with the original series, be forewarned. The disease that Dark suffers from is almost as unpleasant to watch as it is to experience. For much of the movie, Downey looks like a large pepperoni pizza, so if that makes you uncomfortable, this isn’t for you.

The Singing Detective is for people who like their movies challenging, funny, entertaining and somewhat dark. The cast is absolutely delightful, with Downey giving an Oscar-caliber, if not Oscar-bound, performance.

Whether you like The Singing Detective has a lot to do with your personal tastes and the strength of your stomach. But the movie itself is as strong as it can be.

Recommended rental

No Good Deed
Available Tuesday

Starring Samuel L. Jackson and based on the Dashiell Hammett thriller, The House on Turk Street, it is also director Bob Rafelson’s first movie in six years. Jackson plays world-weary cop Jack Friar, whose search for a teenage runaway leads him to the Turk Street home of an elderly couple (Joss Ackland and Grace Zabriskie). Jack finds out too late that the house is headquarters for a gang of criminals and is soon held hostage. Also co-starring Milla Jovovich and Stellan Skarsgård.