Last week I called writer/director Charles Shyer a “lightweight,” and while I still don’t find credits like Irreconcilable Differences and Baby Boom impressive, I have to apologize for that remark in light of Shyer’s remake of Alfie.
Whether or not this is a “necessary” film (in that it’s a remake), the movie is a remarkably adept piece of work that manages to evoke the era of the original while moving the story to the present day. In fact, Shyer’s Alfie captures the 1960s “British invasion” filmmaking style of Richard Lester, Tony Richardson, Michael Winner, etc., better than Lewis Gilbert did in the 1966 original.
Gilbert’s film, for all its merits, didn’t really have the stylistic feel of its era. Instead, it seemed to belong to the earlier, more realistic, “kitchen sink/angry young man” school of Brit cinema. The film’s major stylistic thrust lay in the technique of having the title character speak directly to the audience, an approach that originated in the source play by Bill Naughton. (The exact same thing was true of Gilbert’s later Shirley Valentine.)
Shyer’s film is Alfie as it might have been, had Richard Lester directed it. The film is constructed with a ’60s pop sensibility — split-screens, rapid edits, a song-based soundtrack (by no less than Mick Jagger and Dave Stewart), a cheeky attitude and a clever motif of billboards in the backgrounds that address the film’s themes. The lead character’s mod-looking motor scooter is a nice touch, one that helps the character strangely evoke Sting in Franc Roddam’s Quadrophenia (a film about, but not of, the era).
The new film’s stylistic difference is probably the key to its thematic difference. The old film had an inherent anger that was part and parcel of the sense of the underside of “swinging London.” It was built, however subtly, on the perceived shallowness of its era. Yet it couldn’t help but catch some of the excitement of that era — with its sense of new possibilities — and that gave the original version its edge.
Despite its echoes of the ’60s, Shyer’s film is very much about the modern world. The women are no longer just pliable victims, and they tend to be able to take things into their own hands. Jude Law’s Alfie — unlike Michael Caine’s original — seems to have to work at being a heel. But most of all, the difference lies in the fact that the world of the new Alfie is notably shy on a sense of possibilities.
Indeed, apart from his endless stream of sexual conquests, which seem more to fill the time than supply any level of fulfillment, Alfie’s goal in life is a rather mundane plan to buy the rundown limo service where he works. It’s an aim that, probably unconsciously, recalls Ringo Starr’s early dream of earning enough to buy a beauty parlor (before the Beatles hit the big time). In this regard, the film addresses the death of those earlier, illusory possibilities.
But this Alfie, reflective as it is, is more concerned with Alfie as a person than as a type. Caine’s Alfie was more a type — one that doesn’t exist today in the numbers it did in 1966 — and Shyer is very shrewd in making this change in approach, which he sets up by moving Alfie from London to New York. There’s just no way Alfie is an ordinary New Yorker. In fact, this change makes another comment on the original’s era — when a British accent was suddenly the height of sexy to American audiences.
The story line remains essentially the same. Alfie is the sexually exploitative young man about town, whose motto in an earlier age would have been “love ‘em and leave ‘em.” This modus operandi works well enough with Alfie’s more casual encounters, but keeps tripping him up whenever he begins to care about someone, which Law’s Alfie is far more apt to do than the original did. The chinks in his armor are apparent early on, such as when he confesses that he’s crazy about his more-or-less steady girlfriend’s (Marisa Tomei) little boy.
In many respects, the film is a deliciously ironic examination of Alfie’s attempts at being better than his surface might indicate. The irony is that his efforts tend to come too late (as with Tomei), or that his judgment is no better than that of the women who fall for his surface charms. The first time he starts sliding toward domesticity, it turns out that his newfound ideal woman, Nikki (Sienna Miller, High Speed), has serious chemical dependency and psychological issues.
Each attempt at finding some kind of relationship in which to ground himself seems just a little more desperate and a little more hopeless than the last. The process culminates with a wealthy older woman (Susan Sarandon), who offers the harshest dose of reality Alfie could receive.
At bottom, though, the film rises and falls on the capabilities of its star, and Law does not disappoint, bringing just the right blend of cockiness and underlying sadness to the title role. Law doesn’t need to be made into a star: He’s in a large number of movies this year, and a new trailer attached to Alfie reminds viewers that Law’s voice narrates the upcoming film, Lemony Snickett’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. But his Alfie certainly ought to bring him further critical acclaim, though early signs are that the movie isn’t exactly something the world has been waiting for. That’s too bad, because it’s a movie well worth seeing.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke