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‘Sleuth’ remake hides all the fun

Updated version turns a trashy entertainment into decidedly minor Harold Pinter. By Alonso Duralde

You certainly can’t blame them for trying. A remake of 1972’s entertaining “Sleuth,” with the screen’s two Alfies — Michael Caine and Jude Law — going head-to-head, with Law in the role once played by Caine? Sounds fun. Harold Pinter’s going to do the script. OK, sure, adds a bit of class to the proceedings. Oh, and you got Kenneth Branagh to direct? Wow, terrific; he’s certainly shown himself adept at turning plays into film.

So what went wrong? Why is this new “Sleuth” so flaccid, so pretentious, so unengaging?

Let’s start with the material. Without getting into spoilers, “Sleuth” follows a brash young man as he visits an older man, a rich and successful author. The older man’s wife has left him for the younger man. The younger man wants the older man to give her a divorce. The older man convinces the younger man to stage a fake robbery at the older man’s estate, so that the younger man can lavishly support the unfaithful wife and the older man can collect the insurance. And then things get twisty.

The appeal of the original “Sleuth” was in watching Caine, then a brash young actor of the kitchen-sink drama school, going mano-a-mano with the classically trained Laurence Olivier. The two of them engage in delicious fencing, and even if one or the other occasionally got hammy, it was never less than fascinating.

While “Sleuth” might, on its surface, seem natural for the Pinter treatment — the play is, at its core, about two men arguing over a woman and fighting for dominance — the result is flying buttresses on a bait shack. Pinter’s pauses, and the dour air of so much of the interplay, just don’t fit on a story that’s this slight. It doesn’t help that Pinter has tossed out huge chunks of playwright Anthony Shaffer’s original plot and replaced them with little more than clunky homoerotic subtext. (Oh, and given the film’s ties to both versions of “Alfie,” whoever decided to make Jude Law utter the line “What’s it all about?” should be flogged.)

Adding to the film’s air of portentousness is the set design of Caine’s house, which resembles nothing so much as a disco owned by a Bond villain. Even sillier is the way that Caine can control every single thing in his high-tech playpen with a teeny little remote that looks like it came in the box with an iPod.

Caine, at least, seems to be having a good time playing cat-and-mouse with Law. Caine can rattle off a line like “God, you’re so strong, so ruthless, aren’t you?” and turn it into the most devastating of insults. Law can barely keep up, but he gives it his all, even if you can sometimes see the strain.

Oh, and not to give anything away, but if you’ve seen the original movie, you’ll wonder if the big twist works any better in the new “Sleuth” than it did the first time. Not really, but at least it’s not much worse. Which is about the kindest thing you can say about it.