Writer-director Charles Shyer's Alfie is less a remake of the 1966 film that made Michael Caine a star than it is a retooling that softens the horrific blows struck by the original; it's sweeter, too, cotton candy spun from decades-old arsenic. The original, written by Bill Naughton (who also penned the play) and directed by Lewis Gilbert, has not dated well, its misogyny having gone rancid with the passing of decades. Its status as a beloved relic of the Swinging '60s misleads and misrepresents, given the obnoxiously odious Alfie's penchant for referring to a woman as "it" as he screws his way to screwing up by impregnating the wife of a hospitalized mate. The cocky Cockney breezed through Gilbert's movie till well near the end, when he pays for his sins using someone else's money. He learned nothing and gained even less, save for the stray dog that wanders into his arms when a long-lost mistress refuses his pathetic advances.
Shyer clearly loves Alfie more than his first fathers, and so he offers up a sanitized, fantasized version of Naughton's work, starring Jude Law as the cad-about-town who drives limos and sports modaiolo togs tonier than anything his clients wear. He has reduced Alfie from a son of a bitch to The Man Who Won't Commit -- made him more palatable, in other words. He's a dolled-up version of Alfie, Caine given a metrosexual makeover and dropped in modern-day Manhattan. In his designer garb -- bought, he says, at the end of the season at discounted prices, and always one size too small -- Law would never be caught in Caine's denim jacket or prep-school suits. Nor would he dream of even thinking about hitting a woman should she get out of line, as Caine suggested. Perhaps a better title for this redo would have been Halfie; it lacks most of what made the original so ugly even as it primped for a night out on the swingin' town.
Shyer, maker with ex-wife Nancy Meyers of the Father of the Bride and Parent Trap do-overs, exhorts us to root for Law, but the pretty boy on the Vespa is already his own best cheerleader. Speaking directly to the audience, a device that survived from the stage production, Law suggests a glib self-awareness Caine never possessed, and he needs no real comeuppance, only a little time on a therapist's couch to resolve his relationship issues. He's merely an irresponsible child who refuses to grow up -- Peter Pan with a bothersome hard-on.
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When first we see Alfie, he's shagging a married woman (Jane Krakowski) in the back of his limo, the same scene that opens the original. Then it's off to see girlfriend Julie (Marisa Tomei) at the apartment where she lives with her young son, and already you notice the alterations Shyer and co-writer Elaine Pope have made: Tomei's character in the original actually bears Alfie's son, whom he has no trouble abandoning despite proclaiming his love for the boy. The kid's now reduced to a prop Alfie can pick up and kiss and leave, without the audience believing him a bastard for walking out the door and into some other woman's bed.
But the most noticeable and indefensible change occurs when Alfie impregnates his best friend's (ex-)girlfriend, played by Nia Long, and is forced to drive her to an abortion clinic. Shyer not only moves this event from the film's end to its beginning, to expedite Alfie's downfall and move toward self-reflection, but also enfeebles what in the original was a terrifyingly grim scene, with Denholm Elliott as the self-loathing abortionist. The event causes Alfie to lose his best friend (Omar Epps), but in the original it cost Alfie a piece of his soul, and what was harrowing then becomes merely a wee bit heartbreaking, if that. Epps is barely seen, just one more prop. So, too, is Law's real-life go-go girlfriend Sienna Miller as the manic live-in lover he dismisses for refusing to take her meds. She's there to take off her top and chop cucumbers, to be his shadow and our symbol in case we miss the point.
Perhaps you think it unfair to play all this compare and contrast. (Shyer didn't even want to call his movie Alfie but What's It All About?, a nod to the Bacharach song performed by Joss Stone over the final credits.) But they share so much of the same DNA that they beg to be held side by side and judged against each other. Gilbert's version, with its peppy Sonny Rollins and Burt Bacharach score, was a dark movie acting as if it were light on its feet; it only pretended to be having a good time as it rode that downward spiral toward damnation. This new version, which retains nearly every character and echoes nearly ever scenario, is somehow its complete opposite -- a slight, breezy incarnation that tries like hell to dishearten, which only makes it disingenuous.
But Shyer and Pope, who spike their Manhattan with a dash of mod London, went in faced with a no-win situation: Audiences won't tolerate such a loathsome lead, nor could they stomach a queue of women willing to be smitten and smote by a limey in Prada. By reversing the roles, by populating their movie with strong women (including Susan Sarandon as the rich older lady with a penchant for young men) drawn to but just as repulsed by the impish cad, Shyer has blithely awarded his movie the heart Naughton and Gilbert felt their Alfie, and their Alfie, actually had to earn.