Sunday, April 20, 2008

Sleuth: Grade B

Sleuth (2007)
Michael Caine, Jude Law. Director Kenneth Branaugh.

This is a remake of the 1972 classic in which Caine played the younger man against Olivier’s wealthy eccentric. Here Caine is the wealthy eccentric living in a cold, blue, angular, architectural, ultra-modern country mansion, and Law, who has been sleeping with Caine’s wife, comes over to ask Caine to divorce his wife. For the next 85 minutes these two men, the only actors in the movie, talk with each other, trading insults, plans, entreaties, witticisms and a tiny bit of action. The dialog (by Harold Pinter) crackles with energy and wit, but the bottom line is that it is just two guys talking about random subjects for over an hour. The so-called plot involves each one inviting the other to play a game of wits, in which one is humiliated and the other gloats. It is not believable so ultimately the characters are unmotivated and boring. The story has the contrived feel of a theatrical play (which is where the script started), and Pinter’s writing reminds me of Mamet and in places of Beckett’s Godot, with plenty of rhythmic one-word lines and non-sequiturs. That’s fun, but only for 10 minutes. The whole “battle of wits” theme doesn’t make much sense and did not sustain my interest.

However, there are two strong reasons for watching this movie. One is marvelous acting. Michael Caine has always been one of my favorite second tier actors and here he combines his best face acting with his unique diction. But Jude Law! His acting is superlative here, especially in the “detective” sequence, unlike anything I have seen him do before. We can only guess what Branaugh did to bring out this talent, but it is worth seeing. Secondly, the overall production values are superior, from the innovative and daring cinematography to the artistic sets and excellent makeup and costumes, to perfectly composed and paced music that really contributes to the flow. Lack of a decent story and believable characters are pretty tough handicaps to overcome but this movie almost does it.

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