starring Jude Law, Marisa Tomei, Omar Epps, Nia Long
screenplay by Elaine Pope & Charles Shyer, based on the play and screenplay by Bill Naughton
directed by Charles Shyer
by Walter Chaw I haven't liked any of the six films that Charles Shyer directed before his remake of Lewis Gilbert's Alfie, so I guess there's something to the auteur theory after all. Minus one fab performance from the suddenly omnipresent Jude Law, Shyer's Alfie is a toothless affair--not surprising given modern cinema's propensity for turning out lifeless twaddle, but somewhat dismaying given that the film's source material is one of the most scabrous flicks in the annals of misogyny captured on celluloid. Contrasting the 1966 and 2004 versions of Alfie would be like an essay on how the movies have lost their edge over the course of the past four decades: we've moved from the medium cool of Sixties films, with their yearning to break free from the oppression of the Fifties, to the stagnant pond of the now, with its films too scared to offend the priggish States, filthy as they are with the descendants of pilgrims and Puritans. Come to think of it, a comparison between the two pictures also functions as an examination of the general difference between Europe and America--or an overview of religiosity in all its florid and degenerative influences on art.
What the new Alfie doesn't do is work on its own terms. Alfie (Law) is a womanizer--a hound, a playa--in designer clothes scooting around a Manhattan that's been tarted up like Jacques Demy's Cherbourg in primary colors and graffiti declarations ("Desire," "Pursuit," "Lost"), which identifies the film as impressionistic at best, magic realism at least. Alfie has a light touch--too light, as it happens, as the terminally commitment-phobic Alfie has been transformed into an affable lad who loves children and has a real sweetness about him, but just needs a wake-up call from the maturity police. It's the type of thing that makes it hard to get into the spirit of Alfie's lawless hedonism. When he's banging Jane Krakowski in the backseat of the limo, there hangs in the background the spectre of a tearful comeuppance--and sure enough, Shyer and the powers that be eventually deliver. The movie centres around a beautiful guy who gets around but secretly wants to settle down with one of the dozens of model-perfect partners with whom he enjoys free congress. It's pretty hard to feel a lot of sympathy with Alfie's vintage of blues.
The pleasures of the original Alfie have almost as much to do with star Michael Caine as they do with the picture's canny dissection of the ways in which certain predatory behaviours mark the hunter and prey alike. Caine's conquests aren't gorgeous, they're real and vulnerable; the mousiest person in Jude Law's black book is the luminous Marisa Tomei, and her correlative's five children are distilled in the remake to one adorable Sears catalogue moppet. A gorgeous single-mom living in the Village doesn't exactly inspire the same kind of desperate sadness as an average mom of many living in a run-down tenement in London. But Shyer's Alfie doesn't just fail to live up to Gilbert's: it objectifies Alfie's conquests (we see a lot of Sienna Miller in skivvies or less) in a way that's leering instead of pathetic. Rather than being a commentary on misogyny, it is itself misogynistic--and then at the end of it all, it can't manage to at least be courageously offensive.
Alfie earns the same description as Alfie: all pretty surfaces, interested in gawping at beautiful girls, sort of sweet in a conventional, forced way, and ultimately as hollow as a Christmas ornament. Mentioning its treatment of gays and Asians strikes me as necessary but perfunctory when there's so much more carelessness assigned to its dehumanization of women and, almost worse, their subsequent "redemption" in the protagonist's (and our) eyes. There's something unsavoury going on here that has a lot to do with dishonesty, with an unwillingness to address loneliness in a substantive way. Law's Alfie is so ethereal that he's like an angel; and his "victims" are so unequivocally ravishing that seeing them seduced by Law is more akin to the voyeuristic pleasure of soft-porn than to the devastating effect of watching lonely people reaching for companionship in a creature too damaged to be able to provide it. In Alfie there's the sense that it's all in good fun--even when things turn melo-serious, a happier day seems just around the corner. It's an underdog story about over-dogs, and I can't imagine for a second who would identify with this peculiar fantasy. Originally published: November 5, 2004.