A remake of the 1966 Michael Caine film, I wasn’t expecting anything great from the 2004 version of Alfie. I think I’d forgotten just how brilliant Jude Law can be. In a film so centered on the sheer charisma of its lead, who you put in that role can make or break it. This is after all the movie that made Michael Caine a star. If you’re going to risk a do over, you’re stuck with the unenviable task of finding someone every bit his equal. Jude Law is that, and more. When he sits up in bed, stares right into the camera and starts dispensing straight talk with an impish, cocky smile to the audience about Alfie’s (Jude Law) life, something special starts to happen.
In a way Alfie resembles Hugh Grant’s character, Will, from About a Boy combined with shades of Law as Gigolo Joe in A.I.. You might think of him as the pure sexual essence of James Bond, if James were a limo driver and didn’t bother with all that spying. He’s an unredeemable bastard who uses his smile and charm to get from women what he wants. What he wants is sex with the incredibly beautiful, and lots of it. After all, there are so many choices out there Alfie can’t imagine settling for just one. When a woman gets too attached, it’s time for Alfie to cut and run. It’s not some ingrained flight response or an unthinking fear of commitment. It’s calculated, and Alfie pauses frequently to look at the audience and tell us so.
In short, Alfie’s a bit of an asshole, though Jude does a marvelous job of making him simultaneously likable. Alfie’s focus is primarily on himself. He’s egotistical, self-sure and as such imagines that his dalliances in some way actually help the women he loves and leaves. But even as he engages the camera to serve up that bit of skewed wisdom, there’s something in his eyes, behind his smile letting you know that deep down maybe even he doesn’t believe it, that perhaps he knows what a total dick he really is. He juggles his life like a circus performer, skating through it from one moment to the next without truly allowing himself any sort of connection. He develops attachments to certain people, but only maintains them as long as it’s convenient for him. Julie (Marissa Tomei) for example feeds his nurturing side. A single mother, she provides for him a family environment he can slip in and out of, like a snake shedding its skin. He gets a different sort of energy from his best friend Marlon (Omar Epps), who unlike Alfie has a strong relationship with a strong woman (Nia Long). Played by Omar Epps with a kind of quiet sadness I’ve not seen from Epps before, Marlon seems to be the only person in Alfie’s life who isn’t there primarily for sexual purposes. Yet even he is held at arms length, despite Alfie’s declaration that they are best friends.
Eventually though, after years of scheming, Alfie’s life starts to unravel. The way it happens slowly destroys the idealized version of bachelorhood that Alfie represents, gradually ripping apart the consistently in denial Alfie in the process. As things get worse and worse for him, he refuses to admit any kind of defeat, plying himself and his friends with the convincing words “I’m always alright” and then flashing a gradually less honest smile. Rather than change his ways, Alfie merely shifts to a swinging backup plan, a plan that might have him stalking wealthier older women, or snatching up the first hottie that comes along and convincing her to move in with him. As each fallback position leads him further into trouble, Alfie maintains his façade, staunchly trying to ignore the widening cracks that appear.
In a traditional romantic comedy, by the end of the film all of Alfie’s troubles would be solved by hooking him up with the right girl. Wedding bells would ring romance would triumph, our boy Alfie would see the error of his ways and settle down. This isn’t that movie. Director Charles Shyer delivers deeply adult entertainment that looks honestly at love and our skewed perceptions of bachelorhood. It’s pessimistic and downbeat, the film doesn’t do Alfie any favors. It works because even though Law makes it impossible not to like Alfie, he’s still a prick. It’s easy for the audience to accept that he deserves an extended trip to the emotional gutter.
I love Shyer’s work on the Steve Martin version of Father of the Bride, sappy and silly though that admission may be. But since then he’s done little of note, and certainly nothing like Alfie. Alfie is a smooth piece of directing that wallows in details and handles its subject matter with humor, intelligence, and maturity. Shyer has wrapped his film in gobs of note perfect new music from people like Mick Jagger and David Bowie. He sets his tone with stylish cuts and imagery, intentionally intended to evoke the best styles popular around the time of the original Alfie movie while remaining wholly original. His film is perfectly constructed, with both Law and Shyer lavishing it in the tiniest of details. Take for example the movie’s opening Paramount logo, displayed weirdly enough in Alfie pink and hey, listen closely and you’ll hear the famous theme song from the Michael Caine version softly whispering “What’s it all about?” behind the Paramount logo. Shyer picks up all the little nuances necessary to make this a great picture, from his opening logo to closing credits filled with black and white imagery of Law in action. Jude pays the same type of attention in playing his character; his performance is filled with tiny nuance and expression. His hand imperceptibly reaches for a phone, and then almost just as imperceptibly pulls back as he realizes he has no one to call. His smile fills his face with warmth and charm, while behind his eyes it somehow looks like he’s crying.
After the absolute avalanche of movies Jude Law has done (just this year alone), this is the one in which he truly comes into his own. Sky Captain was merely a fun detour, a character who while sharing in common with Alfie a weird affinity for wearing scarves, isn’t worthy to touch the leftovers of Law’s Alfie performance. He’s put his natural good looks and the maturity that comes with age into playing an total sleaze ball struggling to understand, “What’s it all about?” This is Jude finally realizing the massive potential we’ve never quite seen enough of in movies like Road to Perdition to create an unflinching movie experience.
Alfie is an impressive, wholly adult film that succeeds in doing something remakes almost never do, being at least as good as the original. For me, since it touches on more modern and thus more identifiable themes, I’d go so far as to say it’s better. Alfie plays homage to its roots while creating its own, profoundly absorbing movie experience. It isn’t often that remaking a great movie results in another great movie.