A film review by Craig J. Koban

 

ALFIE jjj
½ 

2004, R, 106 mins.

Alfie: Jude Law / Julie: Marisa Tomei / Marlon: Omar Epps / Lonette: Nia Long / Dorie: Jane Krakowski / Nikki: Sienna Miller / Liz: Susan Surandon

Directed by Charles Shyer /  Written by Elaine Pope and Shyer, based on the play by Bill Naughton

 

“I myself subscribe more to the European philosophy of life, my priorities leaning towards wine, women and...well... that's about it.”

-Alfie 

There is a droll little moment during the beginning of the 2004 remake of ALFIE where the title character, played with hedonistic and spirited glee by Jude Law, reveals to the audience that he has a vocabulary calendar and that everyday he tries to learn a new word in order to become more dignified, insightful, and intelligent.  One particular morning his “word” of the day is “ostentatious” and on a later day his word is "resiliency". Funny, but in hindsight it’s too bad that he never came across the word “monogamy” or “empathy.” 

2004 may seem like the year of Jude Law, to shamelessly and loosely paraphrase Chris Rock’s monologue at this year’s Academy Awards.  He starred in no fewer than six films, some were definitely agreeable (THE AVIATOR and CLOSER, for certain), others were passably entertaining (SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW), while others were largely forgettable (I HEART HUCKABEE’S and LEMONY SNICKET’S A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS).  Late 2004 saw Law in the remake of the 1966 Michael Caine film of the same name, and it truly is an example of an actor carrying a role, if not the entire film.  Law encapsulates the role of Alfie with the right balance of effective self-importance, egotism, male bravado, and, surprisingly, sensitivity and tenderness.  He wisely does not try to imitate Caine’s earlier work, but rather reinterprets it for modern audience sensibilities and makes the character wholly and uniquely his own.  It’s one of his best, most engaging performances. 

I have only vague, elusive recollections of the original 1966 film.  In that film, as I recall, Michael Caine’s Alfie lived in modern London and occupied a world that was sort of on the brink of the sexual revolution.  His Alfie was a character that was forever swimming through the oftentimes-tumultuous waters that is the opposite sex, and his willingness to be smug, coy, and utterly uncompromising was kind of tragic and sad, in a way.  He was a man that slept around religiously with a diversity of women, never placing demands upon them nor himself.  The terms “one night stand” was an acceptable fact of life for him, but despite the fact that he was, to quote a certain International Man of Mystery, “having loads of unprotected, none- monogamous sex in a consequence-free environment,” you eventually began to gain the impression that he was never as "sound as a pound."  Despite the fact that he was smiling and cocky on the outside, he was developing a sense of ambivalence and gloom on the inside. 

ALFIE made Caine a star, and now Jude Law tackles the tricky role in the new film, which director Charles Shyer manages to stay faithful to the original while updating it for contemporary attitudes and tastes, while still trying to tell a simple film about karma and the golden rule.  Shyer, however, places this '04 Alfie in New York instead of London, maybe in an effort to exploit how a charming British chap may have an upper hand in the charisma department in the midst of American men.  I guess, when you think about it, and I have been told this by many a female, ladies love accents, and they sure gravitate to Alfie, despite the fact that he is such an unmitigated SOB.   

That sort of represents the power (and miracle) of Law’s work here.  His portrayal of Alfie kind of reminded me of the performance by Julia Roberts in MY BEST FRIEND’S WEDDING.  In that film Roberts, playing up her smile and good-natured outwardly appearance, did absolutely everything conceivable to sabotage the marriage of a man whom she is best friends with, but secretly loves.  Her actions are deplorable and had the consequences of destroying lives for the worse, and she did so in selfish and callous ways.  Yet, despite all that, we nevertheless are attracted to her and have a sort of stubborn empathy for her cause.  Alfie is much the same character – we know he does harm to others without a care in the world, but there’s no denying that he’s appealing, affable, and pleasant minded, and when he reaches a point where he honestly questions his relative worth, he inspires our sympathies. 

The new film takes place in 2004 New York and subsequently carries a substantial amount of extra baggage to it.  Whereas in the 1960’s promiscuity was kind of an unwritten norm and the only real consequence of unprotected sex was pregnancy and maybe abortion, in the contemporary setting of Law’s ALFIE, more lurid consequences loom overhead constantly.  In an era when sexually transmitted diseases are commonplace, the actions of Alfie have an inherent darkness and gloom to them that they lacked in the original.  In the ’66 version his actions have the power to hurt others, but in the new version he really has the ability to harm both others and himself.  It’s that extra layer of complexity and dimension that makes for a more dangerous world in the new ALFIE than one may otherwise think of. 

Yet, Alfie is still ostensibly the same character as his 60’s cousin.  Yes, he is still a daft Brit with all things women on the mind.   He spends his days and evenings as a limo driver, which kind of gives him wonderful access to all sorts of women that he is carefully and tactfully praying on.  Alfie, being the perfect womanizer and self-described fashion-whore that he is, has the distinct ability to go after every pretty FBB that he comes in contact with, with relative ease and success (FBB = face, boobs, bum, as he proudly explains to us in first person monologue form to the audience, a device that I normally loathe in films, but it works effectively here).  He is a bit of a different textbook narcissist in this version, being a slave to corporate ideals of what he should look like and behave.  Law’s Alfie looks like what all indulgent and spoiled young men aspire to be – a carbon copy of the models off of GQ.  Law’s Alfie is smooth, better dressed, and more confident than ever, and reveals do's and don’ts about members of the opposite sex, kind of like how they would be written about in Men’s Health Magazine. 

Anyway, Alfie does meet and has his way with a number of gorgeous and assorted women.  We meet Dorie (Jane Krakowski) who is a lonely married woman, Liz (Susan Surandon, still looking great at 50 plus) a successful, rich, and eccentric businesswoman who sort of mirrors Alfie in many ways, and Nikki (Sienna Miller) a gorgeous and vivacious model, the type of great blond bombshell that places no serious needs on him (in essence, the absolute woman of Alfie’s desires).  Oh, there is also Lonette (Nia Long) who is a girlfriend of Alfie’s best friend Marlon (Omar Epps), a woman that you probably have figured out by now has been dealt with in ways only Alfie deems as appropriate. 

Then there is Julie (Marisa Tomei), who may be the only really well rounded and nice woman in Alfie’s life.  She is a simple and good-natured single mom with a son to care for (single moms with kids have unnecessary “accessories” in Alfie’s eyes).   The interesting thing that segregates her from the rest of Alfie’s pursuits is that she wants Alfie all to herself and refuses to share him with anyone.  Most of the other women (Surandon’s character, especially) only see Alfie as Alfie sees them, but in Julie’s eyes she wants more.  She is unaware of Alfie’s philandering ways until later in the film.  Alfie’s major moral dilemma is that he truly likes Julie, and more importantly, really cares for her kid as well.  Yet, Julie makes an assertive choice and decides to move on to something and someone better, and when Alfie tries to swoop in and use his obligatory wit to win her back, she boldly and assuredly shuts him out. 

That’s kind of the turning point for Alfie as a character, when he realizes that he is surrounded by and uses women that he really has no sentimental attachment to whatsoever.  This leads him down an existentialist funk.  He begins to realize the errors of his ways with women and especially in the cold-hearted and often cruel ways that he has been treating them.  It is the discovery of these hard truths that awakens Alfie to further questions that we all deal with constantly.  He begins to see that women are no longer an easy to hill to climb up to and conquer.  Julie turns him down, and rightfully so.  The cunning businesswoman, in one key moment, reveals to Alfie that she is sleeping with someone else behind Alfie’s back, for reasons no more complicated than he is “younger” than him.  Then there is Lonette and without going too far and revealing what happens with her, she occupies a moment in the film where Alfie tries to reacquaint himself with her only to find out that the consequences of their one night together are not easily forgettable. 

So, what’s it all about?  ALFIE represents yet another great remake from 2004, one where the film tiptoes between hilarity, pathos, sadness, and sweetness.  What’s truly refreshing about the film is that it does not pander to the audience and go out of its way to appease them at the end and give them a happy conclusion.  By the end of the film Alfie has indeed contemplated the repercussions of his actions and thinks about changing his ways, but he truly does not find happiness, but rather  a sense of inner humility and pride, in a melancholy manner of speaking.  The film has a sort of tantalizing poignancy and ambiguity to it in the end.  Will Alfie go on and re-evaluate his life and change it for the better, or will he continue down the path of unflinching sexual exploits?  I am not sure, but the film does let us know that he’s at least contemplating his life, and despite the fact that he leaves in the end with one of those self-confident and swaggering smiles on his face, it’s a bit different this time – now you get a sense that he’s really sad underneath it all.

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