Alfie

Review by Adam Blair

Directed by Charles Shyer; Screenplay by Shyer and Elaine Pope, based on earlier screenplay and play by Bill Naughton

Starring Jude Law, with Marisa Tomei, Susan Sarandon, Nia Long, Omar Epps, Sienna Miller, Jane Krakowski, Renée Taylor, Jefferson Mays, Dick Latessa, Gedde Watanabe

Rated R; 103 minutes

Jude Law’s Alfie, the Cockney Casanova, remains good company even after the film itself wears out its welcome. Law has to use every ounce of his charm and luscious good looks, along with his considerable acting skills, to carry the audience from the sharp, snappy first hour of the film through the soggy, heavy-handed moralizing of its final third.

On the plus side, director/co-screenwriter Charles Shyer has transplanted the memorable 1966 Michael Caine original from swinging London to today’s New York City, a mostly successful switch that adds New York’s trademark lust for material success to Alfie’s unquenchable hunger for the fair sex. He’s also surrounded Law with top-notch actors and actresses to play Alfie’s many and varied conquests and complications, eliciting strong performances from Marisa Tomei, Nia Long, Omar Epps and still-sexy Susan Sarandon. Can it really be 16 years since Bull Durham? Tim Robbins is a lucky man.

While the story in both versions of Alfie remains basically the same — hound/cad/ladies’ man Alfie hops from bed to bed, promising nothing but, amazingly, getting much in return, until he realizes it’s an empty life and wonders what it’s all about. (Guess what survivor sang the original’s title song? Answer at the bottom of the review).

What gives both versions their kick is the double-edged comic mechanism of having Alfie comment on himself and his situations directly to the audience, unheard by the other characters. This gimmick seduces us into sympathizing with someone we might merely dismiss, despise or envy, but it also unwittingly reveals Alfie’s own frequent incomprehension and misunderstanding of himself, his motives and those of the people around him.

This isn’t exactly revolutionary stuff — actors have been confiding in the audience since Thespis stepped out of the chorus, and a lot of comedy is built on the gap between a character’s self-image and reality (Alfie began its life as a stage play by Bill Naughton). Still, Shyer, co-screenwriter Elaine Pope and Law give this running phallocentric commentary enough spin to keep us on our toes, a pleasurable half-step ahead of Alfie himself, for the film’s first two-thirds.

But the comedic structure breaks down at about the same time as the plot turns, sharply, from light comedy to heavy-handed melodrama. WARNING: PLOT SPOILER AHEAD — SCROLL DOWN TO AVOID. It goes like this: Alfie’s best friend Marlon (Epps) is on the outs with his girlfriend Lonette (Long). Ostensibly to patch things up, Alfie talks to her, and their flirtation rapidly proceeds to fabulous pool-table-top nookie. Marlon, unaware of their boot-knocking session the night before, surprises the hell out of the guilt-stricken Alfie by telling him that not only has Lonette taken him back but that they are going to marry. But, unbeknown to all at this time, Lonette is pregnant. She tells Alfie of her delicate condition a few weeks later; he takes her to the abortion clinic and believes she’s terminated the pregnancy.

Flash forward about a year, and Alfie, having hit a rough patch, goes to visit Lonette and Marlon, who have moved to the country. A grim Lonette shows Alfie her (and presumably his) coffee-colored child. Marlon has stayed with Lonette and the baby, despite the fact that there’s only a slim chance he’s the biological father.

O.K., I get that it’s sad that Alfie won’t be a part of this child’s life (he does like kids; as my sharp friend Lucine points out, he’s basically a kid himself). I get that it was a BAD THING that he slept with his best friend’s girlfriend. BUT: She also slept with him; the flirtation was mutual, the sex consensual and, we kind of assume, pleasurable. Alfie acted as honorably and responsibly as one could expect given the information he had at the time; he’s not a mind reader. Isn’t it fairly anti-feminist to make him the villain when Lonette has made her choice and is living with the consequences of her actions?

PLOT SPOILER OVER — IT’S SAFE TO READ ON.

It’s not that Alfie can’t straddle the line as a comedy-drama, or that he can’t be made to see the error of his wandering ways. But Shyer’s direction makes his downfall so hard that it feels like not just a lesson for Alfie but a stern, finger-waggling lecture to us. See how empty his life is? See how lonely he is? See how he’s left with nothing when youth and looks begin to fade? With a structure as fragile as comedy, switching from Hugh Hefner to Jerry Falwell shatters the narrative frame; it’s overkill.

Is Alfie terrible? By no means. Shyer is a competent mainstream filmmaker who has a nice way with actors; he also directed Baby Boom, the Father of the Bride remake and its sequel and the underrated Irreconcilable Differences. And you could do worse than stare into Law’s blue-green eyes for close to two hours. Just don’t expect magic.

[ANSWER: Cher sang “What’s it all about, Alfie?” over the 1966 film’s end credits.]

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