The problem with remaking movies from the tumultuous 1960s and ’70s is that the elements that made them seem edgy and socially relevant back then date them now. Flailing around desperately for some new hook or gimmick, the filmmakers kill the original’s simple pleasures — the very reasons for remaking it — and end up with an overplanned travesty that resembles it in name only. So the hit-or-miss sketch comedy of Bedazzled became a techno-fantasy starring Elizabeth Hurley’s breasts, and Alfie, a gritty comedy in which Michael Caine played a loutish but charming womanizer, became a glossy rom com in which Jude Law played a yuppie who’s Afraid to Commit.
And then there’s Sleuth. Back in 1972, Caine once again worked his magic as the working-man’s rep on screen, playing an ordinary Joe who’s trying to run off with the wife of an aristocratic millionaire mystery writer (Laurence Olivier). Both he and Olivier received Oscar noms for their roles in the talky cat-and-mouse drama — even though its source, Anthony Shaffer’s hit play, contains a pivotal twist that really works best onstage. (Without spoiling it, let’s just say that on the big screen, the audience can see too much.)
Much of the fun of Sleuth lies in watching the arrogant writer outwit his younger, less classy challenger — who’s come to pressure him to consent to a divorce — and then watching the upstart outwit him right back. But from our point of view, the social structure depicted in the film could be from the Dark Ages — Olivier insults Caine by calling him a “pantry boy.” Rather than making a bold attempt at updating, the makers of the new Sleuth simply hired a screenwriter who’d seen neither play nor film, gave him Shaffer’s text, and let him run with it.
True, that screenwriter is Nobel laureate Harold Pinter. But his laconic script only serves to render the Sleuth remake one of the stagiest, most stilted stage adaptations ever. (It trumps the overrated Closer in this category.) Rarely does a line feel natural or a plot twist unforced. From the moment Milo Tindle (Law playing Caine’s original role) arrives at the cold, monumental mansion of Andrew Wyke (Caine), it’s clear the older man is set on determining “ownership” of his absent wife via a pissing contest. (“That’s my car,” he says archly, pointing outside. “The big one.”) So why does Law agree to a cockeyed plan in which Caine will help him “break into” the mansion and steal some fabulously expensive jewelry? You don’t have to be a mystery writer to spot an implausible motivation, or a scheme that’s way too good to be true.
The story goes on this way — as a series of “ingenious” traps that confuzzle the characters but not the audience. Director Kenneth Branagh does his best to make the movie enigmatic by using arty angles — a whole exchange of dialogue where we see only the actors’ hands, say — or taking the limited, black-and-white POV of one of the security cameras posted all over Caine’s palatial estate. Perhaps he’s trying to make a statement about how people never see the big picture.
But the austere, controlling visual style doesn’t connect with anything in the formulaic script, which demands that one actor always play straight man while the other is camping it up as a psycho. Unbelievable as the characters are, the performances are fun to watch — Caine is better in his low-key sections, while Law comes into his own when he’s ranting and bathing himself in vodka.
Toward the end, Pinter revises Shaffer’s play in a way that is bold — he delves straight into the homoerotic core of the two men’s love-hate fixation on each other. But the “wow” factor is eclipsed by the fact that, in the end, these people still don’t make sense. The original Sleuth proves that the audience will suspend its disbelief sky high, as long as it’s being properly entertained. This one, not so much.