This week’s new Jude Law film, Alfie, pays loving homage to the 1966 original, in which Michael Caine had the title role. The casting is right on — Law feels like a perfect update of Caine, a little prettier, a little more buff, but with a similar raffish charm and ability to make us identify with, even admire, a cad. The look of the film, too, is inspired, a stylized merging of ’60s mod and ’00s slick, weightless glamour (it’s not for nothing Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter has a walk-on role). Law looks like he was born to wear his tight suits and skinny ties, and the slightly faux-hawked hair is a necessary and appropriate update from Caine’s pomaded locks. The women in the revolving door to his bed gain from the treatment as well: Marisa Tomei and Sienna Miller wear the heavy mascara, swept-over bangs, and tailored clothes beautifully, and Jane Krakowski has never been more gorgeous (she has the glamour she needed on “Ally McBeal” — her Elaine looked like a mousy girl trying to be a sex-bomb, but here she’s the real deal).
The music is the same satisfying blend of then and now — the film begins and ends with Joss Stone’s cover of the theme from the original, and the new music, by Mick Jagger and former Eurythmic Dave Stewart, is, for Jagger, a self-homage to the Rolling Stones’ brilliant, bluesy rock of the era. The story is transposed from the gritty alleys of Notting Hill to a New York that seems soaked in sex, populated exclusively by beautiful women aged 20 to 30 (the street scenes almost qualify as soft porn). The interiors are art-directed within an inch of their lives; every room seems to be lit primarily in red and wallpapered with undulating, erotic forms. Everyone smokes constantly. These elements all come together to create a visual and auditory texture that is as playful as it is sexy.
Then there’s the script. It’s possible (and, Alfie demonstrates, sometimes desirable) to revive and reinterpret the ’60s styles, but it can’t do the same with the attitudes. Caine’s Alfie would be totally unacceptable in today’s social and sexual climate. He referred to his sexual partners as “it” and treated them in degrading, dehumanizing ways. An audience may be willing to forgive Jude Law a lot, but abusive misogyny is beyond what even he can get away with. So the writers, Elaine Pope and Charles Shyer, have both declawed Alfie and made him more deeply repentant of his womanizing ways, which raises the question why even bother — why remake Alfie if it must be done as a seminar in feminist empowerment?
Caine’s Alfie was an unrepentant jerk, but he got to have fun. It wasn’t until the final act that he began to grow a conscience. His cynicism was innocent; watching him, you’re repulsed by his attitudes but you understand that he really doesn’t know any better. He thinks his way of living is the only safe way — avoid attachments and the fun of shagging a new girl every night can go on indefinitely. Any other choice would be a capitulation to the Establishment. Being amoral made him cruel, but it made him feel more alive than the suckers who bought into the status quo. But in today’s world, a character can’t just be a selfish jackass; he must have a Fear of Intimacy. Law’s Alfie is written so that almost from the start he’s realizing that the status quo holds satisfactions he can’t know. He begins to repent almost immediately; we don’t get to see a sudden revelation that forces him to reconsider his entire character, we watch as he’s pounded progressively harder over the head for an hour and a half by the news that his life is empty.
This new Alfie lacks any of the original’s subtlety. When Caine saw symbols of mortality, they were glimpsed from the corner of the eye and largely ignored. When Law sees them, he stares, ruminates, falls apart. And, in case he’s not sufficiently shown to be lacking in character, Alfie is contrasted against his best friend, Marlon (Omar Epps), who learned his lesson about respecting women after a single dalliance and is begging his ex-girlfriend Lonette (Nia Long) to take him back. Even worse is the mushy, unnecessary Tuesdays-with-Morrie subplot about the elderly man who becomes his confidant. Or the word-a-day calendar that gives us “ostentatious” and “doomed” back-to-back. Or the girlfriend who hacks up a zucchini with a huge cleaver so that we know she’s emasculating Alfie. And there are bizarrely wrong touches, like the florist who, told to assemble a bouquet for a woman who’s adventurous, reaches for pink carnations (!?) and the limo driver and bartender who quit their jobs to buy a beautiful house in the country (there’s no hint where they got the money).
Law does the best he can with the role, and he does give Alfie depth, but he doesn’t have to earn it the way Caine did. You feel for Alfie because he’s unhappy, but you feel for Law as well because almost from the start the script diminishes what should be a vivid, lively character into a misguided sad-sack. The rest of the cast is equally admirable. Susan Sarandon’s role serves the function that Shelley Winters’ did in the original, but it’s an entirely different character, subtly decadent where Winters was vulgar and blowsy. When Alfie considers settling down with her, you can see that the appeal goes far beyond her financial stability. At 58, Sarandon may never be offered another role so sexy and alluring, and she plays it for everything it’s worth. There are other pleasures to be had in Alfie, but Sarandon’s performance is one of the few you can enjoy without shutting down your brain.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Alfie / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()