Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Sleuth! Too clever by half. Well, by a third. Out now. (******6/10)

Michael Caine is an all-time legend in the acting world. Lately, however, that is not really a reason to see one of his movies, as he has shown absolutely no discretion when it comes to choosing his roles. He has been in some great pictures (Batman Begins, Children of Men), but that seems to be more as a result of him never saying no to a film role than as a result of any kind of discretion when choosing those roles. As is evidenced by some other films of his - Miss Congeniality, Get Carter. And Jude Law is no better a barometer for the quality of a film. Road To Perdition and The Aviator were great, All The King's Men not so much. One of the few young actors who has been working as hard as Michael Caine. So their names on the marquee were not likely to draw many people in to watch Sleuth. The only thing that one can count on when it comes to these two actors is the quality of their own performance in a movie. And by and large, they are both terrific almost all the time.

And considering they are pretty much the only two actors in Sleuth, that should make this movie that much better, shouldn't it? Not only that, but it is directed by Kenneth Brannagh, and he is one of the best directors of literary films of our time. You can tell that this film is Brannagh's work because he is so very Shakespearean when he does any movie. Sleuth is divided, just like a good play, into three very distinct acts. The first act involves Caine and Law having a conversation-confrontation in Caine's house. Caine's wife has left him, and Law is the younger man with whom she is now shacking up. This scene opens with a series of truly strange camera shots, which make the movie feel artistic while simultaneously irritating me. Mercifully they end quickly, and the scene proceeds with some very witty and entertaining dialogue delivered wonderfully by Caine and Law. It ends with a bizarre confrontation and a very strange but compelling break-and-enter-and-murder scene. Close curtain.

Act II: A cop shows up to investigate the murder. Another one-on-one interrogation scene takes place, where Caine is put on the spot by a tough-talking, hard-drinking Scotland Yard cop, and while the dialogue does not sparkle nearly as much as it did in the first scene, this one ends in an almost equally intense way. I think most people could guess the giant revelation at the end of this scene, but since I am not absolutely certain of this, I will not reveal it here. This scene, as did the one before, makes extensive use of Caines monstrous rich-guy mansion, with all it's hidden safes and elevators and lighting remote controls and buttons and gadgets and gizmos. It is the prototypical rich-guy ostentatious house-that-wipes-his-ass-for-him. The fact that the cop knows where all the buttons in the house are tells us all we need to know, which is why the big revelation at the end of the scene is not so surprising.

Act III: The wheels come off, and this third scene appears to have been tacked on at the end of a movie that had no idea how to end itself. The film plunges out of the realm of entertaining cleverness into the abyss of disjointed narrative and unnatrual actions. Midway through this scene, we stop caring about either character involved, and we hope the movie ends quickly. Mercifully, it does.

I give this movie six out of ten, because I rank every movie out of nine and this one was two-thirds good. (To get a ten, a movie has to cross the line between fantastic movie and all-time classic.) I have always said that if you have say, several verses to a song, and one of them is clearly weaker than the others, bury it in the middle. Don't open with the weak verse, and certainly don't close with it. This movie had used up all it's creativity and intelligence by the one-hour mark. Michael Caine starred in the original, 1970 movie, with Lawrence Olivier. Caine is decent at capturing the character Olivier played in the original. However, Jude Law is nowhere near becoming the next Michael Caine. The best character in the movie, in fact, ends up being the house. And that's not a good thing.

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