'Alfie': Only A Pretty Face
Friday, November 5, 2004
IF YOU want to know the difference between original and copy, between quality and mediocrity, just watch "Alfie" starring Jude Law. Then rent a DVD version of the 1966 British original starring Michael Caine.
No bleedin' contest, mate. Michael's got the Caine-do attitude. Jude ought to go into law.
In the original "Alfie," Caine is Alfie, a Londoner who loves his women, or "birds." He's a roguish charmer from the moment he emerges from a window-fogged car. He's just had a naughty little maneuver in there with a married woman.
He dusts off his coat and addresses the camera, matter of factly, about his swinging life. An ironic narrator, he speaks with purposely inappropriate breeziness about the women whose hearts he breaks so effortlessly. But despite his cavalier ways, there's something almost childlike and sweet about this Alfie. You warm up to this rascal right away because you know he's got a heart; he's just in denial about it.
Caine's bravura, often hilarious performance is fortified by a brilliant script, which Bill Naughton adapted from his play.
This brings us to the newest "Alfie," directed by Charles Shyer, which changes the London locale to New York City. Right there, we're in trouble already. But let's move on. Shyer, a co-writer of "Private Benjamin" with a seeming penchant for redoing older, better films ("Father of the Bride" and "The Parent Trap"), and TV sitcom writer Elaine Pope have reconfigured their Alfie for the modern day.
A Brit from modest digs in London, he moves to New York City and becomes a sort of eurotrashy poseur, living in a low-rent corner of the Big Apple, dressing in retro '60s chic. And just to show there's still a little Englishman left in him he also calls his female quarry birds. (You don't believe his act or his language for a minute.) He seems to be one part Alfie from the 1960s and the other part, well, multiplex star drone. There's nothing authentic about this London lad. (Even songs written for the movie by famous musical Brits Mick Jagger and Dave Stewart sound bland and counterfeit.) Nothing particularly likable either. In fact, he's the equivalent of the dead parrot in the famous Monty Python sketch. He only looks alive because he's all but nailed to his perch. Sure, he's good-looking and can expect shivery response from certain members of the audience, but Alfie 'e ain't.
Law's Alfie is using dependable girl Julie (Marisa Tomei) as his back-up girlfriend. And his big moral issue is when he finds himself in a compromising position with sultry Lonette (Nia Long), who's still involved with Alfie's good friend Marlon (Omar Epps). Alfie goes for the moment and ends up sorry. At first, he thinks he's accidentally done some good because Lonette immediately reunites with Marlon.
But as Alfie points out in his voice-over, no good deed goes unpunished.
In fairness to Shyer and Pope, they had to retrofit their women. In the 1960s, women on screen weren't given much in the way of independence. The female characters in the 1966 "Alfie" are pushovers, easy to abuse and boss around. In this day and age, as Alfie would say, ladies have become women. They've evolved into equal contenders in the romantic power game. And pulling a fast one over them is not only impossible, it's morally unacceptable for the audience.
But these updated, zesty women -- including Law's current squeeze Sienna Miller as Nikki, a blond beauty with dark issues -- feel forced into the story. Their relationships with Alfie are uninvolving and trite. The three-way relationship among Alfie, Marlon and Lonette is particularly contrived. There seems to be no reason any of them would be remotely interested in one another as friends or lovers. They're thrown together just to look cosmopolitan and you know, New York-like.
The best character tussle comes toward the end, when Alfie meets his match, the very interesting Liz (Susan Sarandon), an uptown older woman who's decked out in Chanel and knows what she wants out of men. Sarandon puts major, voluptuous oomph into the part, almost jolting Law out of his pretty-boy complacency. (Don't miss Shelley Winters's sassy turn in the same role in the original.) But unfortunately, this provocative battle comes too late. We've long stopped caring about the question from the famous pop song: What's it all about, Alfie?