Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Starring Michael Caine, Jude Law, Harold Pinter. (2007, R, 86 min.)
REVIEWED By Josh Rosenblatt, Fri., Nov. 9, 2007
It takes something really special to bring together a Nobel Prize-winning writer, a director renowned for his Shakespeare adaptations, a two-time Oscar-winning actor who also happens to be a knight of the British realm, and the reigning No. 1 British screen heartthrob and still come up with nonsense. But somehow the producers of Sleuth managed to pull it off, making a film that’s right up there with Crash, The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996), and the Kennedy White House for sheer wasted potential and misguided ambition. Sleuth, adapted by Pinter from the original stage play by Anthony Shaffer, is a remake of the 1972 classic starring Laurence Olivier and a young comer named Michael Caine. In that film, Olivier played the aging cuckold Andrew Wyke, who invites his wife’s young lover over to his mansion for a murderous battle of wits, virility, and scenery-chewing. But time marches inexorably on: Olivier is dead and Caine is now old enough to play Wyke, leaving our generation’s Alfie (Law) the role of Milo Tindle, the out-of-work actor/hairdresser whose arrogance makes him the perfect rube in the older man’s game of deception and retribution. Which raises the question: How do you make a movie about two men talking for an hour and a half and still keep your audience interested? Louis Malle chose a tone of eavesdropping naturalism for his brilliant My Dinner With Andre, still the genre’s standard-bearer. Branagh, meanwhile, chooses to run off in the opposite direction, relying on camera stunts and manic energy to cover up the fact that he doesn’t trust his audience to sit still for a conversation. Which means we’re forced to watch Law bounce off the walls like Daffy Duck while the director shoots him and his adversary from great heights, from behind a barricade of Venetian blinds, and through dozens of video-surveillance cameras scattered inexplicably throughout Wyke’s country estate. Through it all, Caine manages to keep his cool, but that’s only because he’s made this movie before and realizes there’s no point in making it again. It’s anybody’s guess why an actor this good would feel the need to keep going back and tarnishing his earlier successes (as he did once before by appearing in the abysmal Sylvester Stallone-starring remake of Get Carter), but if he keeps it up, it won’t be long before we see him in an update of The Man Who Would Be King, this time starring Will Ferrell, Seth Rogen, and the cast of High School Musical.