Here's a film that delivers exactly what you expect from it and I don't mean that as a compliment. The Hollywood remake of Alfie takes the 1966 original, tones it down, dumbs it down and turns it into soulless multiplex product. Lewis Gilbert's Alfie is a quintessentially British film - a cross between a bawdy lad-on-the-make sex comedy and a gritty kitchen sink drama. Charles Shyer's remake is a slick star vehicle for Jude Law, sex symbol du jour. It has more in common with Tom Cruise's vanity project Cocktail than with its inspiration.
Shyer, whose unremarkable CV as writer and director includes Father Of The Bride I & II, has made the predictable and crucial mistake of softening the title character and trying to make him likeable. Michael Caine played an unapologetic bastard who cared for no one but himself and treated women as a commodity. If we laughed at his observations, felt sorry for him at times or had a sneaking admiration for some of his antics, it was in spite of what he was, not because of it. The reason Alfie is so iconic is the uncompromising way Bill Naughton wrote him and Michael Caine played him.
This Alfie isn't meant to be a bastard. He's supposed to be a charming scoundrel with a twinkle in his eye. Caine's cruel misogyny has been replaced by Law's semi-ironic, Maxim-generation laddishness. This Alfie wants his fun but he also wants our affection and sympathy. We're expected to look past his caddish exterior and see the needy little boy inside. If that was the character Shyer and Law wanted to tackle, maybe they should have left Alfie alone and remade Shampoo because Warren Beatty got there first and did the job better. For all his efforts, Law isn't sympathetic, he comes off as a smug user who lacks even the honesty to accept what he is. Don't get me wrong, this is not trendy Jude Law-bashing. He's a fine actor and I've admired him in many films, from Gattaca to Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow, but this is not his finest hour. He's wrong for this part and his performance only makes matters worse.
As reimagined by Shyer and Law, Alfie Elkins is a cocky British expat in Manhattan. He drives a limousine for a living and comes home to a pokey apartment, albeit one that still looks well beyond the means of a limo driver. Alfie is a womaniser whose interest in the opposite sex is summed up by the letters FBB - Face, Boobs, Bum. He doesn't believe in settling down and he carefully chooses girlfriends who won't make too many demands on him, like busy single mother Julie (Marisa Tomei), party animal Nikki (Sienna Miller) and wealthy divorcee Liz (Susan Sarandon). Alfie's aim is to glide through life without being hurt and, where possible, without hurting anyone else. Of course this is an impossible goal as he soon finds out.
Too soon in fact. The other critical error this version of Alfie makes is to push its moral message into the foreground. Lewis Gilbert's film assumed its audience was intelligent enough to know that Alfie's behaviour was selfish and nasty. Charles Shyer thinks we need to see the pain on the face of a betrayed friend, the tears running down the cheeks of a dumped girlfriend and the growing guilt in Alfie's eyes to get the message that using people and disposing of them is wrong. This subtle-as-a-brick approach not only takes the sting out of the tale, it removes the naughty, vicarious appeal of watching Alfie have his wicked way with the ladies. The movie feels less like a comedy than a series of heavy-handed moral lessons.
Another questionable change is the glossy New York backdrop, a far cry from the decidedly unglamourous London locations of the older film. Shyer does nothing new with the most recognisible city on Earth and the setting just serves to emphasise the slickness and unoriginality of the movie. It's like a fashion shoot with a plot. The Big Apple also invites more unflattering comparisons, as if this film needed any more of those, this time with the TV series Sex And The City, which deals with much the same issues as Alfie (Samantha practically is the female Alfie), but is so much snappier, funnier and more intelligent.
This being The Jude Law Show, no one else in the cast gets a lot of screentime. Marisa Tomei, Omar Epps as Alfie's best friend and Nia Long as Epps' faithless girlfriend are gone quickly. Susan Sarandon, playing the Shelley Winters role, is unimpressive. Her character has also been softened: she still delivers the same final, hurtful line but while Winters meant it to hurt, Sarandon has to have it tearfully wrung out of her. More impressive is Sienna Miller, who plays the loyal but troubled Nikki, the only character in the film who earns any sympathy. Miller may have been FBB in Layer Cake but she's believable and touching here. Much of the publicity for this film has centred on her relationship with Jude Law and it would be a shame if this promising actress was written off as a star's girlfriend.