Alfie (2004)

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 03/14/05 20:56:53

"What's It All About? Redux."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Just as I can’t imagine anyone other than Michael Caine playing the title role in the 1966 “Alfie,” I can’t imagine anyone other than Jude Law doing the same for the 2004 remake. It’s Law’s impish smile, illegally good looks, and unshakable charm that somehow makes the idea of updating the quintessential Brit-mod sexual revolution story to modern day New York seem not only doable, but worth while.

Of course, the whole thing sounds like a big mistake. “Alfie,” if you recall, was so tied into its time and place that a mere remake would seem unnecessary - key plot points deal with the sexual atmosphere of the time, and surely bringing such a story into today’s world wouldn’t quite fit. And relocating the main character, a guy who had British slang pouring from his lips faster than you could keep up, to Manhattan, the most all-American, non-British place on the planet? Sacrilege!

And yet, somehow it all works. Writers Charles Shyer (who also directed) and Elaine Pope help craft a screenplay that bends our expectations. Some of the original’s plot points are expanded, others are deleted, most have been completely rearranged. This is not merely to surprise those familiar with the older film, but, more importantly, to keep the basic story relevant.

The basic story, for those who do not know, involves Alfie, a selfish womanizer with countless girlfriends kept all across town. As his adventures in sex roll on, he begins to realize just how alone his lifestyle has left him, leaving him finally to ask that famous question, “What’s it all about?”

And that’s it, really. Most of the story has been carefully restructured to bring the character into modern times. I will not spoil most of the changes, although I will mention that one vital adjustment - a former girlfriend’s son is now no longer Alfie’s child - changes the tone of the entire picture. The Caine’s Alfie was one suppressing the regret of walking away from his son (and a potential happier, settled-down life); Law’s Alfie has those same regrets, but they do not feel as pertinent, as immediate.

But it still works as the study of a man for whom romance is just a game. Law charms just as easily as Caine (more so, perhaps, thanks to his chiseled features, something Caine never had), and we still feel every moment of his eventual heartbreak. Perhaps this is due to the remake’s decision to not let Alfie be as openly cold to his girlfriends. More subtle in his seductions, less blunt in his calculations, this is a softer Alfie, easier to like.

There’s a scene in this new version that takes a throwaway moment from the original - Alfie buys flowers, a move out of character - and develops it into something special. Here, we see the idea of love has consumed Alfie, and it’s a joy to see him smitten. Gone are his defenses of cool separation and well-told lies. It’s a moment of sweetness, and we begin to feel that maybe this guy deserves a little sweetness in his life for a change.

And yet, the women in this update are far more attractive, suggesting that perhaps this newer Alfie is more shallow. Law’s Alfie is a guy straight off the pages of some glossy, perfume sample-drenched fashion magazine, a narcissist created by “GQ.” This is an Alfie for the 21st century.

These two sides, the more likable and the more shallow, combine to form a remake I wasn’t expecting. I assumed this would be a dumbed-down modernization, yet it is not. It keeps the heartache and the cleverness of the original, while daring to go to darker places in an effort to keep it relevant. It take chances in its upgrade, to find a reason to remake the classic story in the first place. While it doesn’t manage to hit the highs and lows of the original, it still manages to stand out on its own. It’s like a fine cover of a classic song - familiar yet refreshingly different. That’s what this “Alfie” is all about.

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