Sunday, February 21, 2010

What's Driving Me Crazy About Sleuth

It all must have looked so good on paper.

The original 1972 "Sleuth" was a classic game of GOTCHA!, starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine as a rich old man and poor young man, a cuckolded husband pitted against his wife's unrepentant lover. They become locked in a epic battle of wits, and the entire film is the two of them manipulating, humiliating, and generally screwing with each others' heads in the name of pride and revenge. Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, it's a wonderfully nasty piece of work that gives the actors a lot of scenery to chew and a lot of plot twists to play out. The second act features one of the best damn GOTCHA! moments in all of film history, which left me shrieking with glee when I first saw it. (No worries. I won't spoil it here.)

Fast-forward to the 2007, and the modern-day remake scripted by Harold Pinter, directed by Kenneth Branagh, and starring Michael Caine as the rich old man with Jude Law as the younger one. Take a minute to let those names sink in. Harold Pinter is a playwright with an endless list of honors, including a Nobel Prize for Literature and his own adjective, pinteresque. Kenneth Branagh built his film and theater career on updated versions of Shakespeare plays, and is a massive Olivier fanboy. Michael Caine's has continued to do good work since the 70s and shows no sign of slowing down. And Jude Law is one lucky bastard, but not an untalented one.

This is a film nerd's dream, the ideal group of people you want involved in a remake of anything - good filmmakers and performers who admire the original, including one of the primary actors ready and willing to have another go at the material. With such big, famous, celebrated names, what could possibly go wrong?


I don't doubt for a minute that everyone involved with the 2007 "Sleuth" tried their best and had only good intentions for the film. Parts of it are pretty decent, especially the thirty minutes of the first act - conventional, but solid. And then it all goes to hell. I mentioned before that the second act has one of the great GOTCHA! moments of all time. The remake uses the same trick, except it doesn't work. None of it works, not the performances, not the writing, not even the little technical things that shouldn't have mattered. And then it got worse. I spent a good couple of hours after the movie was over, trying to puzzle out whether it had been badly done on purpose, for some sort of artistic effect, and finally came to the conclusion that it really was as awful as I thought it was. And all four of the guys with their names on the poster are responsible.

Harold Pinter - I've only seen a few of the older films he was involved in, and they don't call his work "comedies of menace" for nothing. He knows how to put these stories and characters together, knows how to get all sorts of complicated emotions out in the open. The trouble is his dialogue, the famous awkward pauses notwithstanding, has seriously fallen behind the times. Michael Caine's character is more or less all right, but some of the stuff that comes out of Jude Law's mouth is nothing you'd hear out of a guy his age in this decade. Moreover, I think Pinter made a mistake removing so much of the really visceral nastiness and unpleasantness of the original. At no point did I think that either of the characters was really being pushed beyond their limits or driven to do things they otherwise wouldn't. Subtlety is all well and good, but not when it undercuts so much of the energy and rawness of the story's emotional core.

Kenneth Branagh - He's probably responsible for the most damage. The original "Sleuth" was set in the old man's country mansion, full of odd clockwork curios, providing a thematically significant backdrop to the fun and games. Branagh's modern update turns the old man's house into a weirdly-lit, sparsely furnished, museum of modern something-or-other. The curios have been replaced by high-tech gadgetry, surveillance cameras, and remote-controlled electronics that provide opportunities to get in plenty of gratuitous fish-eye shots, shots from television monitors, shots from laptop screens, and so on. "Sleuth" has its origins in a theater play of the same name, and the whole thing doesn't take place on more than two or three sets. To make it look cinematic must have been a challenge, but Branagh seriously overcompensates. He never stops pushing these distracting visuals at us, that do nothing to complement any of the performances or the story itself.

Finally the actors are not blameless, though there is every indication that both of them were trying really, really damn hard. Especially Jude Law, who goes so far over the top, he's practically stratospheric. Of course, Olivier also hammed it up in the first "Sleuth," so this isn't a serious transgression in and if itself. The real trouble is that Law and Caine don't seem to be operating on the same wavelength after the first act, when the tricks and the games really kick into gear. Caine plays it so close to the vest, as Law's performance gets more and more outlandish, after a certain point you completely lose suspension of disbelief. They both have their good moments, when the masks slip and some of the inner demons coming smiling through, but there aren't enough, and the facades they throw up against each other aren't nearly as entertaining as they're supposed to be.

"Sleuth" '07 isn't unsalvageable. The third act does get back on track eventually, and there are a few good twists that you never could have had in "Sleuth" '72. I wouldn't mind sitting through a stage version of the new one, just to see if it comes out any better than the film. Right now I can't get my head around how four creative people of this caliber could have put together such a mess. Maybe they were too enamored with each other to adequately check and balance their worst impulses. Maybe this combination of talent just added up to toxic. Maybe it was everything. Maybe it was nothing. It's a mystery far more fascinating that the film itself.

I'm still glad they tried, if nothing else. I still love the original film. And if they want to mount a "Sleuth 2042" when Jude Law finally gives up on his hairline, I'll be happy to watch and obsess over that one too.

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