An “Alfie” Lite for contempo audiences, Paramount’s new version of the 1966 hit that made Michael Caine a star is a breezy, sexy romp with a conscience that reflects in obvious but interesting ways on societal changes over the intervening 38 years. Jude Law shines as the English pretty-boy cutting a wide swath through the women of Manhattan, and while the film’s verve and alluring cast look to ignite some nice B.O. sparks in late-fall release, softening of the original’s harsh bite results in a work of only modest heft. Pushed back to a Nov. 5 bow Stateside, pic opens today (Oct. 22) in the U.K.
As performed by Caine and, before him, John Neville and Terence Stamp onstage, playwright Bill Naughton’s Alfie was a Cockney cad who had his way with an array of women. The femmes were not all knockouts but most of them were compliantly willing to be used and then tossed out, as the Rolling Stones put it at the time, like yesterday’s papers. Seeing the film today is, among other things, an instructive reminder of the pre-feminist mindset, at least among a certain class of women.
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Director Charles Shyer and his co-scenarist Elaine Pope, a comedy writer and producer on “Murphy Brown” and “Seinfeld,” have recalibrated the material in mostly plausible ways for modern sensibilities. Alfie has been kicked up the social scale at least a couple of notches, with a softened accent, greatly augmented fashion sense and awareness of female issues all contributing to create a revised character considered Eurotrash by some but whose looks, charm and energy make him welcome everywhere he goes.
The move to New York City, motivated by Alfie’s impression that the city has “the most beautiful birds in the world,” also feels right — it further dispenses with class distinctions and creates a fresh backdrop for the story. And the fact that the women have minds of their own and don’t necessarily take Alfie’s act lying down, so to speak, serves to challenge the man’s complacent cockiness, which is once again engagingly expressed in confidential running commentary addressed straight to camera.
“It doesn’t do to become dependent on anybody in this life,” Alfie advises at the outset, when he’s splitting his time between a married woman (Jane Krakowski) and his “semi-regular, quasi-sort of girlfriend” Julie (Marisa Tomei), the single mom of a boy of whom Alfie’s quite fond. Julie would clearly like to settle down, but this is the surest thing to drive Alfie away; as reconceived and watered down here, Alfie is not a heartless rake but merely suffers from “commitment issues.”
His scant moral sense is also evident in how he treats his best mate Marlon (Omar Epps), a fellow limo driver distraught over being dumped by foxy barmaid Lonette (Nia Long). So what does Alfie do? He gets wasted with Lonette afterhours and gets it on with her on the bar’s pool table.
Lonette ends up back with Marlon, but it’s Alfie who accompanies her to an abortion clinic shortly thereafter. This close call coincides with a stretch of “erectile dysfunction” for the swinging bachelor, which occasions what could be the first extended interlude in cinema history dedicated to illustrating the hero’s inability to get it up with a succession of women. Episode ends oddly with Alfie becoming aroused when a queenly doctor examines his ailing organ.
Fully back in business with winter approaching, Alfie soon finds his Christmas stocking overflowing with two dynamite new ladies. Deciding post-ailment that he can “aim higher,” the lad is welcomed into the life of glamorous cosmetics tycoon Liz (Susan Sarandon), whose ripe worldly woman triggers an instant enthusiasm in Alfie for older femmes.
Then there’s hot-to-trot Nikki (Sienna Miller), a smashingly sexy party girl who seems at first to be Alfie’s perfect match. Even Alfie thinks so, making a huge exception to his rules by letting her lodge at his apartment. But unlike Alfie, Nikki doesn’t know how to curb her excesses, careening too far out of control for her ardent lover to tolerate it.
As they did before, the chickens come home to roost for Alfie in the final act, although in less convulsive ways. Liz lowers the boom on him the same way Shelley Winters did to her gigolo the first time around, and Alfie’s one-night stand with Lonette comes back to haunt him in a manner he never dreamed possible. But Shyer and Pope don’t even try to find a contempo equivalent to the original’s climactic story strand involving the illicit abortion of an older married woman Alfie impregnated, and his devastated reaction to the home procedure. Lacking anything like this, new version comes up significantly short in final impact.
The challenge of taking on esteemed material has evidently inspired director Shyer to shake off the bland and bloodless polish of his ultra-mainstream Hollywood pictures to inject this remake with welcome vitality. Happily dropping the affected use of single thematic words art-directed into the backgrounds of scenes, Shyer employs a jumpy, quick-cutting style he’s never used before. He also relies to a great degree on rich musical ingredients, including wafts of the great original tune by Burt Bacharach and Hal David (does anyone remember that it was Cher, not Dionne Warwick, who sang it under the end credits of the original film?), several arresting new contributions from Mick Jagger, Dave Stewart and John Powell, and numerous standards.
But he also gets the dynamics among the characters right, is generous to his actors (all the actresses come off very nicely indeed, thanks also to Ashley Rowe’s consistently becoming lighting and lensing) and guides Law to an entirely engaging performance that does not so much compete with Caine’s as comfortably co-exist alongside it at a nearly four-decade remove. Many men meeting an Alfie in real life would no doubt be put off by his impossibly good looks and luck with women, but Law makes him entirely palatable company.