This year’s Alfie (Jude Law) keeps a small NYC apartment, adorned by a Let’s Get Lost poster. This famous image of Chet Baker—trumpet foregrounded and eyes closed as he presses his face into a woman’s torso, as she, in turn, looks so directly into the camera—is at once appropriate and wistful, a willfully blind, cool-cat reflection of Alfie’s own lack of awareness and his dependence on women, any women, to prop up his self-understanding.
This much is well-known from Lewis Gilbert’s 1966 film, the one so closely identified with Dionne Warwick’s thrilling rendition of the lyric, “What’s it all about?” While this question seems no more resolvable than back then, Charles Shyer’s film poses it so consequences become strangely uncomplicated. In part this has to do with the new Alfie’s adorable quotient; where Michael Caine’s Cockney bloke was explicitly rough around the edges, a laddish sort resisting maturation, Law’s British womanizer is unavoidably pretty, gliding through his chosen land of Manhattan as a limo driver, a gig that affords him endless opportunities to pick up upscale, leggy lovelies.
While the old Alfie reveled in his resolute cluelessness, driving about London in search of “birds,” the new one has imposed on him a certain cultural awareness. The movie addresses such awareness selectively. Perhaps to maintain the original film’s spirit, this one never mentions sexually transmitted diseases or legal issues. As before, the man’s serial shagging—of married lady-in-his-limo Dorie (Jane Krakowski); single mom/“semi-permanent-quasi-sort-of-girlfriend” Julie (Marisa Tomei), who eventually tires of being a “glorified booty call”; absinthe-quaffing sophisticate Liz (Susan Sarandon); and the deliriously beautiful, very-‘60s-looking addict Nikki (the breathtaking Sienna Miller)—is accompanied by his repeated direct address to the camera.
Back in the day, Alfie’s self-revelations were sometimes disturbing and even surprising. Here was a man admitting that he made decisions based on mad self-love, rejecting conventional responsibility and even courtesy, dropping girls when they even thought about asking too much (as in, asking Alfie to meet the cuckolded husband, or expecting that promises be kept). Now, his attitude is familiar and his language and confessional mode too typical. Post Real World and Malcolm in the Middle, self-conscious, fourth-wall-breaking narrators are common, and only rarely compelling.
This Alfie has opportunity to comment on his own activities as well as those of other men, maintaining his sense of superiority, and impeccable taste in clothing. He works at an agency owned by Mr. Wing (Gedde Watanabe), a painfully stereotypical, limping (could the demasculinization of this character be any clearer?) hardworking immigrant who demands long hours and dedication from his few drivers. More to the point, Wing’s repeated mistreatment of his longsuffering wife (Jo Yang) makes Alfie look relatively sensitive (he only abandons his girls, but doesn’t berate them). Observing and interpreting this behavior, Alfie doesn’t quite absorb that, if you don’t respect and romance your girl, she’ll leave you. When Wing’s life leaves him, Alfie offers the most mundane advice (“Write her a poem!”), then goes on his way, focused on his own mounting troubles.
These emerge as Alfie disrespects most everyone who comes his way, including his supposed best friend and coworker Marlon (Omar Epps). With this liaison, the new Alfie appears to engage the 21st century, though Alfie’s status as relationship expert and mentor to Marlon isn’t strictly plausible (this is Omar Epps we’re talking about). Marlon’s problem, introduced early, has to do with his ex, a savvy cocktail waitress named Lonette (Nia Long). He wants her back desperately (such explicit desire being a no-no in Alfie’s book of rules, a sign of vulnerability and incompetence), and foolishly asks his buddy to intervene, to make his case to Lonette up one night after work.
The predictable effect, Lonette’s pregnancy, repeats the problem that the first Alfie had when he had sex with a married woman (Vivien Merchant), whose invalid husband could not have been mistaken for the father. (Poor woman, she was only seeking some small pleasure, during her otherwise undaunted allegiance to her husband, and caddish Alfie only took advantage.) Aside from the obvious infidelity, the ‘60s dilemma was premised on the fact that abortion was then illegal; Alfie’s pain is palpable and also difficult to watch. During the infamous scene when the woman is administered the purgative, Alfie looks straight at the camera and complains, low-voiced and chillingly, “I hate anything like this. My understanding of women only goes so far as the pleasure. When it comes to the pain, I’m like every other bloke. I don’t want to know.” With that, he endeavors to comfort her, briefly, only to be horrified by what he sees, post-induced-miscarriage, in the bathroom. Alfie’s surprise at his own tears memorably reveals his lack of self-understanding.
This year, Alfie’s issues are different. That is, they remain focused on him, not the effects of his actions on any of friends. This focus takes some machinations, as the he is supposed to be tight with Marlon. Following Aflie’s liaison with Lonette, Marlon makes up with her (apparently, the sex with Alfie made her realize how much she loved her man). Abortion is now legal and available at a neighborhood clinic, though it is still plainly traumatic, at least for Lonette. Alfie’s utterly banal lack of empathy is also annoying: the boy appears stuck in a time warp, still believing that man’s absolute freedom in all matters sexual and familial is eternal.
More troubling than Alfie’s expected selfishness is this film’s effort to update the old story. As Marlon is still having sex with Lonette, the pregnancy itself can’t be the evidence of perfidy. Presumably, this turn of events underscores Alfie’s contemporary coolness, as he has sex with black, married, and childed women, his apparent lack of discrimination serves as sign of his social and maybe even his political progressiveness. At the same time, the danger of discovery lies in the potential baby’s appearance, that is, in its embodiment of miscegenation. No surprise, the film is unable to work through this crisis coherently, but instead makes it into Alfie’s personal predicament (as he literally worries about his losses), leaving out the historical, cultural background of Marlon’s (possible) distress and sense of betrayal.
Alfie’s education is, of course, the film’s primary business. Still, it repeats the original’s emphasis on his resilience, his efforts to sustain his convenient ignorance and pursuit of specific pleasures. Now, such resilience is less charming than it might once have been, and certainly less excusable. Surrounded by urgent, provocative signposts that he just can’t see, Alfie remains lost.