Alfie (2004) Review
Chris Rock managed to ruffle a few feathers with his introduction to the Academy Award ceremony this year, in one of the jokes from his routine he mocked many - including himself - about whether they were stars, or merely famous people. One of the people he labelled ‘just’ a famous person was Jude Law, going on to say “Who is Jude Law anyway, and why is he in every film I’ve seen in the last four years?” This didn’t sit well with Sean Penn, doing his best to support the theory he really has no sense of humour (a theory that probably began after the release of We’re No Angels) when he stepped up on stage to present an award he replied to Rock’s question “Jude Law is actually one of our finest actors.” You can only assume Penn had just sat through Closer, or perhaps I Heart Huckabees, Chris Rock on the other hand, had probably sat through Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Cold Mountain, and Alfie.
Alfie (Jude Law) is a ladies man, and that’s certainly plural because Alfie really can’t be tying himself down to one woman. Even if it is a woman he sees repeatedly he’d never put a label on it, words like boyfriend, girlfriend and relationship don’t ever emerge from Alfie’s lips, because if he was a boyfriend, with a girlfriend, if they were in a relationship, that would mean whenever he ran off with another woman he’d have to use words like cheating, infidelity, or bastard. Alfie isn’t concerned with material possessions, well, except for his wardrobe - what self respecting gigolo would be seen dead in the same Armani jacket 2 nights in a row - his flat is sparse, mostly because he never sleeps there, and his job as a chauffeur is largely maintained so he can keep meeting wealthy women bored with their husbands. All things must change though, and after Alfie manages to behave so badly he loses the only three people in the world he actually cares about, including his best friend, it starts to dawn on Alfie that he might, just maybe, be going about life all wrong, and possibly, could be, a complete arsehole.
As romantic-comedies go, Alfie is a rather odd one, and that’s mostly because it isn’t a romantic comedy at all, as hard as it tries to be. There are a number of subjects covered (well, that’s a generous term, but they’re touched upon) in the film, including abortion and penile cancer, that you wouldn’t expect to find in a rom-com. With good reason too, because they really aren’t romantic subjects, some may see such inclusions as brave choices, trying to bring a touch of the harsh reality of life to the sugar coated happy world of the movies, but aside from the fact that the issues are hardly handled, rather thrown in, easily resolved and swiftly forgotten about, the last thing you want to be thinking about coming out of a nice romantic first date is “if I get lucky is she going to end up pregnant, and could this be my last chance ‘cause I might have a genitalia-mutilating disease?” It’s tough to think of two bigger barriers to a romantic atmosphere now isn’t it? Also, the film has a complete lack of romantic tension, usually we’re given two leads who will dutifully spend the course of the movie falling for each other, even if they don’t want to admit it, and we wait patiently for them both to realise they’re truly in love and get together. The problem with Alfie is he beds everyone he meets within 20 minutes, so even when he sticks around long enough to learn their names we’re not waiting for people to get together, just for them to fall apart, which really isn’t very romantic at all. In fact, when you get down to it, there isn’t anything romantic about the movie. At all. It’s beguiling that director Charles Shyer has put so much effort into making this light, inconsequential, fluff, because the subject matter is anything but, and should be taken far more seriously. The throwaway jokes, the happy-go-lucky feeling of Alfie as he goes through affair after affair, they just don’t gel with what’s going on in the world around him. Alfie is supposed to be re-evaluating his life, the problems he’s caused are meant to be making him realise he’s been going about life all wrong, and search for the right way of doing things. The problem is he acts like he actually quite likes the way things are going most of the time, and feels like he’s supposed to be changing, but he’s not entirely sure why.
The real problem with the direction Alfie takes is, no matter how much agony he causes other people, Alfie remains our hero. We’re never meant to turn on Alfie, but instead love him, and desperately want him to find happiness. Of course, we don’t, because if you look past his good looks and charm, and see him for what he really is, you’ll want him to suffer. Yes, he lost the closest thing he had to a girlfriend, along with his two closest friends - his potential business partner (Omar Epps) and his fiancee (Nia Long) - and he needs them back to be happy. Well, tough. He lost his ‘girlfriend’ because he couldn’t admit he cared about her, kept sleeping with other women, and only saw her when his only other option was to sleep alone. His friends disappeared after he slept with one of them - something he was too cowardly to admit to his best friend - and they ran off to the country to be rid of him. He doesn’t deserve the redemption, he doesn’t deserve these people back in his life, he should be bloody miserable about what a pitiful excuse for a man he is. In any other movie Alfie would be the guy we’re supposed to boo at, as our valiant nice guy tries to convince the girl he’s loved secretly for years that Alfie really is the arse we all see him for. So why is he the ‘hero’ here? This is, after all, a man who flirts with his elderly neighbour to get her to do his cleaning for free.
It isn’t all bad news for Alfie though, at least it looks good. Shyer has filled the film with a faux-sixties style (doubtless a nod to the Michael Caine original, even if real sixties fashions weren’t close to being as stylish as the retro-chic displayed here) and everything looks exceedingly slick and lavish. The sumptuous set and costume designs, along with the universally attractive cast, mean there’s always something beautiful to look at but just like Alfie you’ll soon realise that there’s more to life than having something beautiful in front of you, and you’ll want for something with a little substance. The supporting cast try their hardest to provide it, as they’re the ones having their lives destroyed by Alfie’s actions they do have a lot more to do, but with Alfie going through women faster than most men go through porn mags none of them are around long enough to have a large impact on the film. Really, nothing can save Alfie from a script that tries to mix light romantic fluff with far more serious subject matter, whilst the original certainly had its share of light moments - Caine’s breaking of the fourth wall was there to stop things getting to serious - it knew the direction it should be going in. This remake really doesn’t, it’s a muddled mess that presents us with a character with no redeeming qualities, apart from serving as eye candy, and dares us not to like him. Funny, that doesn’t end up being that hard to do, and Alfie the man and Alfie the film end up being remarkably similar, they may look good, and they may be tempting, but you’ll probably walk away from them disappointed because when you scratch that glossy surface Alfie is a shit.
As mentioned before, Alfie is a great looking film, between Shyer’s style and Ashley Rowe’s cinematography the film, more often than not, shines. Presented here in anamoprhic 1.85:1 widescreen the transfer is vibrant, but not always the sharpest. The colour palette is runs the gamut from near day-glow summer tones, to harsh steely blues, depending on the events in Alfie’s life, and they’re reproduced fantastically. There is however a noticeable grain to the image, which is noted in the commentary by Padraic McKinley as a digital effect. It wasn’t clear if he was just talking about selected scenes (possibly making them match) or the whole film, but either way it seems an unnecessary distraction in a film so otherwise slickly designed and shot.
As per usual with a movie like this, the soundtrack gives you little to notice aside from the dialogue. The surround channels are used for ambient effects and the soundtrack, if you pay attention to them that is, but your sub won’t need to be woken up and you’ll rarely be distracted from the centre channel.
Commentary from Writer/Director Charles Shyer and Editor Padraic McKinley
The first of the two commentaries suffers, as the second does, from a lack of involvement from the actors. As is all to often the case with commentaries by the technical crew this is rather dry and not a whole lot of fun to listen to. There is, of course, a lot to be learned from this - I’d missed Shyer’s little homage to Once Upon a Time in America - but most of it really isn’t worth learning. There’s only so many times you can listen to people pointing out how many locations were used for shooting, and whilst it is impressive that they can merge London, Manchester and New York so seamlessly together, that’s the kind of information that’s far better presented in other features - on this disc no less - making this commentary quite a chore.
Commentary from Writer/Director Charles Shyer and Writer/Producer Elaine Pope
Whilst this second commentary still lacks the energy that comes from including performers there is a lot more to enjoy here. Whilst the first was overly technical in its observations, Shyer and Pope together take a look at the writing of the film, and the challenges that came in updating Alfie’s world 40 years. That said, while it’s interesting to hear their reasoning, you have to wonder how much value there is in spending time listening to people explain their choices, when the end result was so badly misjudged.
Round Table - An Intimate Discussion of the Film’s Production
This unusual feature sees director Charles Shyer sitting down with the film’s producer, cinematographer and editor to talk about how they got on board the project, their experiences making it, and how they feel about the finished product. Everyone seems to be very eager to point out how different this films style is from the original, though they don’t make a very good argument, even though it really is different so it should have been pretty easy.
The World of Alfie
This ten minute piece looks at Alfie in comparison with the original movie. A lot of aspects of the film were updated, for example it didn’t seem all that pertinent for Alfie to get tuberculosis any more, with cancer being a much more relevant way for him to face his mortality. Jude Law here describes the original as a social drama, if the film-makers were aware of that then I’m not sure why they felt the need to lessen that aspect in the remake, of all the things to change, the lack of focus was a huge problem with this version, even more disappointing when you discover the filmmakers were aware the original had that focus.
The Women of Alfie
There are 5 main women in Alfie’s life, as there were in the original, and this piece takes a look at how they were updated for the remake. If there’s one area this version really succeeds it’s providing great roles for the women, the original film was before women’s lib, so when Alfie treated his women like a man’s man should, they just whimpered and took it. So while the modern day Alfie’s women still get screwed, at least they take it like real people.
Alfie: Deconstruction of a Scene
We’re guided through this segment by editor Padraic McKinley, as he talks about Alfie’s opening monologue delivered whilst riding his Vespa through Manhattan. Sort of. What actually happened is it snowed when they planned to shoot, so they got one day to film instead of three and spent the rest of the film trying to figure out how they were going to fill in the gaps. That involved green screen work, building a set in the car park at Shepperton Studios, and stealing footage from a deleted scene, and this makes for a nice, albeit brief, feature, that gives you a look at the more chaotic side of film-making.
Gedde Watanabe Dance Footage with Optional Commentary from Charles Shyer and Elaine Pope
Having seen the film, I was left looking at the title of this one wondering what the hell it could be, and having seen it, my confusion was understandable. It seems in-between takes Shyer likes to have music on the set, and Gedde Watanabe seems to have decided he needed to shake his stuff for the cameras one day. Probably something that should have been reserved for an easter egg, and the commentary serves no purpose other than providing context, this will still probably raise a smile.
Let the Music In
The music of Alfie deserves a little more attention than your average soundtrack, as, rather than gathering a collection of pop songs, or even classics, they got some classics to write them some pop songs. This short piece looks at Dave Stewart and Mick Jagger writing and recording the soundtrack at Abbey Road studios, and even though Stewart seems to think Jagger is writing something far more profound than he really is, this still makes for better background music than the latest Sugababes or Ronan Keating single.
Deleted Scenes with Optional Commentary from Charles Shyer and Padraic McKinley
8 deleted scenes have made their way onto the disc (some might argue far more could have been excised) but for the most part they’re simply extended versions of existing scenes, there is one excised plot-line about Sienna Miller’s boyfriend, but it really didn’t make a difference to Alfie’s life, and as such is an easy choice for exclusion in an already tangled web of relationships.
The disc also carries the original theatrical trailer and script, production and storyboard galleries, as well as trailers forLemony Snickett’s Series of Unfortunate Events, Suspect Zero and Coach Carter.
The original film shot Michael Caine to fame (after his then-flatmate Terrence Stamp turned down the opportunity to take the part he’d played on the stage to the big screen) but it’s a good thing somebody knew what they were doing with the movie then, or Michael Caine wouldn’t be a household name today, and equally lucky for Jude Law he’s already far too famous to have this effect his career. The DVD fares far better, the pleasant picture and a reasonable soundtrack were all the film required, but Paramount have provided a special edition that’s bound to please anyone who actually enjoyed the film, and the effort they’ve gone to is far more than the film deserved. Strangely, the UK release of Alfie, although available either on its own or with the ‘66 original, carries no features at all, so although it was released on this side of the pond first anyone who held out has been well rewarded, and this is certainly the release to go for if you feel compelled to add Alfie to your collection.