In the mid-'80s, writer Dan Dark is admitted to hospital with a debilitating skin disease. A scathing misanthrope, he alienates his doctors, his nurses and his ex-wife - until treatment from the laid-back Dr. Gibbon unlocks a dark secret from the past.
Dennis Potter's 1986 musical mini-series was a milestone in British television, with Michael Gambon as the acid-tongued, psoriasis-riddled novelist whose inner demons have made both him and his life unbearable.
A Hollywood adaptation was inevitable, but Potter so hated the US remake of his previous hit, Pennies From Heaven, starring Steve Martin, that he insisted on writing his own script. He finished it shortly before his death in 1994. The script did the rounds of Hollywood before Mel Gibson stepped in to personally fund this stellar but surprisingly low-budget production. Directed by Keith Gordon, the result couldn't be more faithful - and that, to be blunt, is the problem. Not that you'd know it straight away, but the story is now set in the '80s, with rock 'n' roll interludes replacing the wartime singalongs of the TV original.
As the irascible Dark, disgraced golden boy Downey Jr. puts his heart and soul into a demanding tragi-comic role that he clearly hopes will remind Hollywood of his underrated, wide-ranging talents. And this is the film's chief - well, only - pleasure: a chance to root for an actor on the rebound. But where Gambon made the perfect misanthrope, Downey doesn't quite fit the role. Astonishingly, despite his drug-related crimes and misdemeanours, he actually seems too innocent to be so crabby and vile. Around him, the cast of characters drift in and out like the supporting players they are, sometimes in flashbacks to Dark's tortured childhood, sometimes in his jealous fantasies and sometimes in twisted scenes from his own cheap crime novels. The latter is where we find the film's strongest moments of light relief, with Adrien Brody on surprisingly funny form as one of two fictional hoods who burst out of Dark's books and come gunning for him.
Gibson's own appearance (against type) as the balding, good-hearted doctor gives the film a similar boost, but ultimately it's not enough to save a movie that never once catches fire - made with noble intentions but long after its time and place had gone.
Downey Jr's comeback performance is a tantalising taste of what we've been missing, but Dennis Potter's dated script is followed too faithfully and is rather clumsily staged.