Film Studies: His own worst enemy. Not ours

Robert Downey Jr is 38, and he ought to be in his prime. There's no reason why he shouldn't be considered for a third of the best movie roles in his age-range. Downey could have played all of the guys in Mystic River - he would have made Sean Penn a touch charming; he would have offered a Tim Robbins we were afraid of; and he'd have given a few hints as to why Kevin Bacon's wife had left him. But never mind Mystic River, which gets all kinds of fatuous praise and will likely get Oscar nominations.

I mention it only as an example of the astonishing, mercurial range in Downey Jr, along with his helpless instinct to play off the ostensible nature of a character and show you something else, unexpected and conflicting.

Downey Jr is dangerous. Everyone feels it about him, and there's a popular wisdom that he is his own worst enemy (because, as he admits, every day may bring a different result in the matter of whether he's a sober and insurable great actor, or not). But the real danger is that he may know and feel more than dull, misanthropic film directors want to be bothered with. So Sean Penn in Mystic River can turn in a performance so ingratiatingly nasty you could scrape it off with a blunt knife. While Downey might have made the guy so complicated you wanted to scream.

Instead, Robert Downey Jr is out now in The Singing Detective. You may remember the Dennis Potter TV serial done in 1986 with Michael Gambon as Philip Marlowe. We may be agreed that it remains one of the great works in the history of television, and more worthwhile than most movies. So why the hell did they want to remake it?

Yes, Potter himself had written a short-form script, transferred to America, in which the Marlowe character becomes Dan Dark. And there's serious talent on this movie: it was produced by Mel Gibson; it is directed by an intriguing maverick, Keith Gordon; and there are very good supporting performances from Gibson, Jeremy Northam and Adrien Brody. None of which takes away from it being a misguided project that will offend Potter enthusiasts and leave everyone else bewildered. The Singing Detective is not straightforward. It required time (six hours, more or less) for us to feel out the interweaving of its many different strands. Ramming it all into two hours makes it seem insane.

Downey does his very best, bearing up under the psoriatic make-up and the hectic pace, and I would urge anyone to go see the film, but it remains the work of an actor who couldn't get insured. The only reason The Singing Detective got made was that Mel Gibson carried the risk personally. All he did to encourage Downey (they have been friends since they appeared together in Air America (1990), the kind of movie God sent into the world to make friendships), was to show Downey a picture every day of Mel's penis on a chopping block.

Robert Downey Jr is now in the position, at his prime, of being very hard to insure because no one in that business is prepared to pay the premium demanded and based on his recent record for substance abuse.

So he has been doing the rounds to promote The Singing Detective and to protest his calm being. He looks as if he has been working out; he looks "well"; but he seems horribly tense, as if aware that, sooner or later, every interviewer is going to ask him whether he's going to go back to drugs. A year in prison and time with all those skills that offer "healing" have not made Downey any more sanguine about his own chances. But his charm, and his rare intelligence, have always consisted of living on the brink and doing hand-stands.

He's been told to be earnest in all his interviews, to say what a bad thing drugs are (his father gave him marijuana when he was eight). In short, be saved, be tragic, be contrite, be solemn. None of which is remotely close to his nature or instincts. He knows he could be finished as a movie actor. To which he'd likely respond, "Oh, my God, you mean I can't be in the next Matrix picture, or Son of Ocean's 11 or..." or Gothika, his next, in which he's a doctor trying to persuade Halle Berry she's not a ghost? What's the point of Berry if she's sane, or Downey if he's ordinary? He is too much the satirist to be our resident invalid, too good an actor to keep a straight face. So catch him while you can, and ask yourself when last you saw such mischief, or realised what courage it took?

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

'The Singing Detective' (15) is released on 14 November

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