"Sleuth" Remake Hides All the Fun
Updated version turns a trashy original into decidedly minor Harold Pinter
MSNBC.com, 8 October 2007
You certainly canít blame them for trying. A remake of 1972ís entertaining "Sleuth," with the screenís two Alfies ó Michael Caine and Jude Law ó going head-to-head, with Law in the role once played by Caine? Sounds fun. Harold Pinterís going to do the script. OK, sure, adds a bit of class to the proceedings. Oh, and you got Kenneth Branagh to direct? Wow, terrific; heís certainly shown himself adept at turning plays into film.
So what went wrong? Why is this new "Sleuth" so flaccid, so pretentious, so unengaging?
Letís start with the material. Without getting into spoilers, "Sleuth" follows a brash young man as he visits an older man, a rich and successful author. The older manís wife has left him for the younger man. The younger man wants the older man to give her a divorce. The older man convinces the younger man to stage a fake robbery at the older manís estate, so that the younger man can lavishly support the unfaithful wife and the older man can collect the insurance. And then things get twisty.
The appeal of the original "Sleuth" was in watching Caine, then a brash young actor of the kitchen-sink drama school, going mano-a-mano with the classically trained Laurence Olivier. The two of them engage in delicious fencing, and even if one or the other occasionally got hammy, it was never less than fascinating.
While "Sleuth" might, on its surface, seem natural for the Pinter treatment ó the play is, at its core, about two men arguing over a woman and fighting for dominance ó the result is flying buttresses on a bait shack. Pinterís pauses, and the dour air of so much of the interplay, just donít fit on a story thatís this slight. It doesnít help that Pinter has tossed out huge chunks of playwright Anthony Shafferís original plot and replaced them with little more than clunky homoerotic subtext. (Oh, and given the filmís ties to both versions of "Alfie," whoever decided to make Jude Law utter the line "Whatís it all about?" should be flogged.)
Adding to the filmís air of portentousness is the set design of Caineís house, which resembles nothing so much as a disco owned by a Bond villain. Even sillier is the way that Caine can control every single thing in his high-tech playpen with a teeny little remote that looks like it came in the box with an iPod.
Caine, at least, seems to be having a good time playing cat-and-mouse with Law. Caine can rattle off a line like "God, youíre so strong, so ruthless, arenít you?" and turn it into the most devastating of insults. Law can barely keep up, but he gives it his all, even if you can sometimes see the strain.
Oh, and not to give anything away, but if youíve seen the original movie, youíll wonder if the big twist works any better in the new "Sleuth" than it did the first time. Not really, but at least itís not much worse. Which is about the kindest thing you can say about it.