Tuesday, May 01, 2007

'Alfie' is more universal than you may think

“Alfie” would seem like the least likely candidate for a 21st century update and certainly not one with the gloss of Hollywood. The original is usually found in the romance or romantic comedy section of video stores, but doesn’t really follow the conventions of either, although it does have elements of both.

In truth, both versions are less genre films than they are character studies of a man who realizes his different-girl-a-night lifestyle, may leave him rather sad and lonely. At times his story is harrowing, at moments amusing and occasionally even perceptive. It was a hit in 1966, but only did modestly well in 2004 because, like so many films, it was a victim of mis-marketing.

The new “Alfie,” like its predecessor, isn’t a romantic comedy, but naturally was sold as one. It doesn’t deliver on the expectations of the genre and those hoping for the comfort of a pretty boy and girl getting together will be let down. Those who appreciate a film that breaks from the norm will be pleasantly surprised by the new “Alfie,” which in its own way is a daring little film.

Alfie as personified by Michael Caine in 1966 was a limo driver living it up in swinging London. Every night was a different woman, all relatively lifeless and uninteresting, merely prey to fall under Alfie’s charms. The story is so deeply rooted in the sixties, how could this work in a modern, post-feminism, post-AIDS era?

The 2004 model of Alfie comes in the form of Jude Law, who is now a limo driver in New York, which almost excuses Alfie’s sexual exploits. At one point Alfie is referred to as Euro trash, and yet women always fall for his accent.

Director and co-writer Charles Shyer does the rare feat of creating a remake that isn’t a mere retread. Shyer’s direction blends a fun mix of sixties styles and modern techniques to create a feel that is unique and fresh.

On the level of content, the film is relevant and has much to say about modern love and life. It has more depth than you expect from a film about a man interested in shallow sexual encounters. The film manages to find unexpected truths and does so with a lot of honesty and heart.

As an audience we shouldn’t like Alfie. He is a sexist, insensitive, sexual predator, who loves them and leaves them once things start getting too close. In the original, he is a father that doesn’t do the right thing; the new version softens that detail away.

In both films we get a guided tour of Alfie’s life in the form of casual, candid to the camera monologues. Maybe because we are seeing it all from his perspective we can accept his more deplorable actions. Or maybe because he is in the form of Caine, and Law we are just as taken in by his charms as the women in each of the films.

By the nature of Alfie’s lifestyle, the female characters don’t have substantial screen time. The women in the new version come and go just as quickly as they did in the original. Even so, as played by the likes of Marisa Tomei, Nia Long, Sienna Miller and Susan Sarandon, they are stronger and a bit more independent than their predecessors. They are given enough time to be more than mere cookie cutters.

Tomei, sadly, is given the least to do as Alfie’s single-mom sort of girlfriend. She is sweet and thankful isn’t written to be a nag trying to rope Alfie into a relationship. She does the dumping because she knows Alfie is no good for her or her son. Tomei is convincing in what little screen time she has.

Long is Alfie’s best mate’s ex-girlfriend that he has a fling with, which results in a pregnancy. The original Alfie’s most heartbreaking scene was an illegal abortion that still packs a wallop today. The new film can’t go down that path and have the same controversial emotional impact, but even though this parallel plotline doesn’t have the same weight as the original, writers Elaine Pope and Shyer, find a new way to explore similar emotions that is believable and valid in this modern age.

Miller’s character, a train wreck of a woman with bipolar tendencies, is given a bit more time to develop her role. It would be easy for this character to come off as nothing more than a maniac stereotype, but Miller keeps the character from going completely over-the-top. There’s a real sense of sadness when she tries to make amends for her mood swings only to be dumped.

Sarandon (like Shelley Winters before her) plays the older woman with a taste for younger men, who gets under Alfie’s skin. They are kindred spirits. Sarandon is a female version of Alfie, but she has a thicker skin than Alfie and has been at the game longer. In both films Alfie let’s his guard down only to be hurt the exact way he hurt so many himself.

This is what ultimately makes Alfie more than just a letch and allows the audience to empathize with him. As both films progress, Alfie begins to regret his lifestyle, he wants to change, but can’t break his habits. It is this development that lets the character transcend his sixties roots and become a universal character.

Alfie develops into a tragic figure as he begins to realize how empty his life is. The original ends on a down note with Alfie accepting that he can’t change and will have a lonely, loveless existence.

It is so rare in modern filmmaking that a Hollywood film doesn’t go for the ending that bares its name, so the remake of “Alfie” is sort of remarkable that it retains the spirit of original’s ending.

Alfie doesn’t go through a 180 transform. He isn’t welcomed back with open arms by one of his many lovers. The new version dares to be ambiguous and leave its conclusion open ended, in fact the film takes the gamble of concluding with the sort of question that is usually a start point not an end note. For some viewers this may frustrate, but for those seeking something different it is oh so satisfying.

1 comment:

MovieWatcher said...

Thank you for that fine thoughtful review. I saw the new Alfie when it came out in 2004, and I thought it was a lovely sad bittersweet film. Jude Law was wonderful in it, totally convincing as the man who is actually still a little boy trying to grow up. I don't understand why some people especially those in the UK like to trash it. I think this film will stand the test of time.