Alfie (2004)

“He does have the ability to take over, take charge, and run with it, which a lot of actors don’t have.” Director Charles Shyer is describing Jude Law, ragingly perfect star of his Alfie. Shyer and producer Elaine Pope remark that the film didn’t “open as well in America as we had hoped,” and you’re left to wonder whether this disappointment is despite and perhaps because of this casting: if nothing else, Chris Rock’s Oscar riff underlined Law’s recent ubiquitousness.

Law’s performance is wholly charming and energetic. And though he maintains his British accent for the role, Shyer’s remake of the Michael Caine-starring Alfie of 1966 moves him from London to NYC, where he keeps a small 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 (Shyer calls it a “little bit of the Kerouac vibe”). Baker, the caddish American beauty, serves as an illustrative model for this Alfie — maybe wounded, slightly sad, certainly lost, but pushing on to possess whatever brief sensual comforts he might find.

These usually take the form of beautiful girls — young, leggy, eager to please — and, as Shyer and Pope’s commentary points out, if Alfie’s choices are often not so “right,” they might be understood by viewers and even, in some cases, desirable, just because the people on screen are so pretty. “Shit happens,” laughs Pope. Just so, the 2004 film sets up Alfie’s notoriously brief relationships begin and end without the sorts of heavy-duty consequences that so troubled Lewis Gilbert’s anti-hero back in the day. In part this has to do with the new Alfie’s charm; where Caine’s Cockney bloke was explicitly rough around the edges, a laddish sort resisting maturation, Law’s cad glides through his chosen land of Manhattan as a limo driver, a gig that affords him endless opportunities to pick up fashionable, apparently always available lovelies.

Paramount’s new DVD is a classy affair, with a raft of extras. In addition to the director-producer commentary, it includes a second, with Shyer and editor Padraic McKinley, as well as a 16-minute “Roundtable,” featuring Shyer, McKinley, director of cinematography Ashley Rowe, and production designer Sophie Becher, discussing “Alfie” as an idea, ideal, and problem. Two short featurettes — “The World of Alfie” and “The Women of Alfie” — offer the usual sort of self-involved view of the project: look how pretty these girls are. 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.

The first Alfie’s self-revelations were sometimes disturbing and surprising. He admitted that he made decisions based on mad self-love, rejecting conventional responsibility, dropping girls when they even thought about asking too much. Now, this 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. He 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 illegal, and the girl did her backroom suffering in his apartment. In 2004, his concerns are almost wholly about him, his relationship to the pregnancy, his best friend betrayed, his inability to commit to anyone beyond himself (he again goes through the cancer scare). Following Aflie’s liaison with Lonette, Marlon makes up with her. Lonette’s announcement that she’s pregnant leads to a moment in front of a neighborhood clinic. Alfie’s banal lack of empathy is just annoying: he’s 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 it. 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 all sorts of 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 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 he can’t or won’t see, Alfie remains lost.