Strange, isn’t it, how a movie that’s relatively short — say, 86 minutes — can sometimes seem so much longer? Oh so much longer, in the case of “Sleuth,” a picture whose modest length still manages to outlast our interest and then test our patience.
This is a remake of a superior 1972 movie based on a Tony Award-winning play by Anthony Shaffer, who also wrote the original film’s screenplay. That earlier “Sleuth” was nominated for four Academy Awards, two of them for its stars, Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine. This new “Sleuth” is hereby nominated for a good long talking-to, possibly followed by a smack in the head. Whose idea was it to eradicate what I recall (dimly, I admit) as Shaffer’s delectably entertaining dialogue and to invite the venerable, Nobel-clutching playwright Harold Pinter to fill in the blanks with his distinctive brand of barbed and vinegary hostility? To whom could this have seemed an excellent plan?
Well, Jude Law, apparently. Law and his production partner, Simon Halfon, came up with the idea of remaking “Sleuth,” brought the septuagenarian Pinter onboard, and then persuaded Michael Caine to make a return visit in the role of the wealthy crime novelist Andrew Wyke (played in the original movie by Olivier), while Law slipped into Caine’s old role of Milo Tindle, the callow, cuckolding youth who’s sleeping with Wyke’s wife. With Kenneth Branagh installed as director, this unseaworthy vessel set sail, and is now approaching the merciless reefs of what I suspect will be critical dismay and commercial indifference.
The somewhat twisted skeleton of Shaffer’s original work (which Pinter says he’s never seen or read) can still be discerned here. Wyke, a master of games and role-playing, has invited the scruffy Milo, an out-of-work actor, to his mansion to discuss their common problem: Wyke’s wife Maggie, with whom Milo is currently shacked up. Milo wants the sardonic novelist to give Maggie the divorce she wants (along with a large helping of his wealth); Wyke has no intention of allowing her that satisfaction. The two men’s verbal sparring is tart and soon wounding as they hiss and parry around Wyke’s house — a modernist horror of bare brick, black lacquer and stainless steel, the whole of it chockablock with surveillance monitors and bathed in ever-shifting colored lights, chiefly of an overbearing blue. (It’s a huge, unlivable place that looks like an especially pretentious art gallery from which patrons are staying away in droves.)
Wyke clearly despises Milo — or does he? At one point he claims he actually wants to be rid of Maggie so he can live in peace with his own mistress — but should we believe him? He suggests staging a burglary in the house that would net Milo enough money to live abroad with Maggie in considerable luxury. (No loss to Wyke — he’d be covered by insurance.) Milo would have to be the burglar, of course, while Wyke … well, soon we see that Wyke has a gun.
Michael Caine has made many movies over the past 50 years, some of them, inevitably, rather bad. To my knowledge, though, he’s never been bad himself; and here, his veiled menace and crackling delivery bring to the picture an energy that’s otherwise in low supply. Impressively, Jude Law holds his own with this great actor in the early part of the film. I like Law — not just his virtuoso performances in “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and Steven Spielberg’s “Artificial Intelligence: AI,” but also his underrated work in such movies as “Closer” and, yes, even the reviled “Alfie.” Here, though — possibly because he was also the picture’s main money-raising producer — his performance is sometimes allowed to wallow into actory self-indulgence. He has moments of gibbering hysteria and braying exultation that make you wonder if the director had any real say in what was going on; and Milo’s embarrassingly over-amped homoerotic effusions toward the end seem to come out of nowhere. (Caine appears to be hoping they might go away if he just ignores them.) There is also an impersonation that’s technically adroit on Law’s part, but borderline-preposterous within its context.
The movie is monotonously stagy (the hyper-dramatic lighting is pure theater), but that may be unavoidable given the source. Shaffer’s original story, though — a procession of devious narrative stratagems — was a lot of fun. Here, the filmmakers seem to have felt that smart, simple enjoyability was a quaint concept in need of updating. What they’ve come up with is something funless and unlovely, like an Easter basket that’s been restocked with rotten eggs.
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