The thing about Jude Law is that he is so unbelievably beautiful. Such is his pulchritude, not to mention his irresistible onscreen charm, that its easy to overlook the undeniable acting chops that are greater even than the sum of his more ephemeral gifts. In ALFIE, Charles Shyer’s re-make of the 60s classic that starred Michael Caine, all of Law’s talents are called into play and displayed to exquisite advantage in this tragedy about a man who discovers too late how very, very alone he truly is. In fact, anything less than a charming pretty boy would be ridiculous in the role of the fatally magnetic, terminally commitment-phobic manchild. Anything less than an ability to show the slow, emotionally wrenching slide into adulthood that this libidinous Peter Pan goes through would be an exercise in futility on the part of all involved.
True to that description, Alfie’s living the hedonistically ideal existence in Manhattan. It’s a series of encounters with beautiful women with no strings and certainly no emotion, aside from those associated with instant gratification and a quick, though polite, farewell. Decked out in Prada and Gucci, he chauffeurs the wealthy about town to cover his wardrobe expenses and to make the occasional conquest. There are vague plans to start his own limousine service in partnership with his only friend, Marlon (Omar Epps), once Marlon has stopped weeping into his coffee over being dumped by gorgeous girlfriend Nia Long. Alfie might seem to be the guy to cheer him up, since he sees himself as a little ray of sunshine to all around him, especially his harem. There’s Julia (a soulful Marisa Tomei), the nurturing quasi-official girlfriend good for a hot meal, a warm bed and a dazzling smile, Dorie (Jane Krackowski), the neglected wife who’s getting too clingy, and Nikki (Sienna Miller), the Christmas wish come true who teaches him lesson about being careful what you wish for. Theres also Liz (Susan Sarandon in an arch and sexy turn), the self-made woman who isn’t so much Alfie’s match as his alter-, more successful ego. Life is certainly good for him, but fate is about to bring him up short in ways that our boy could not have seen coming, but anyone around him could have predicted. And because there is a poetry to it, it’s the women in his life who do the bringing, unintentionally, yet. Refreshingly, it’s the women of the piece who the real strength, even the most emotionally fragile of them, adults in stark contrast, and completely incomprehensible, to Alfie.
Director and co-writer Charles Shyer has maintained the story arc of the original film in general terms. Specifics update it to the 21st century, while the look of the film, the clothes, locations, hair, and make-up give a non-ironic nod to its 1960s origins. The slick direction, also a nod to the 60s anarchic style of split screens and photo freezes, has a sly way of dissecting a character while setting the scene. The colors are heightened, vivid in places, in others given a blue-gray cast when Alfie’s mood falls. The effect is no so much like seeing the world through Alfie’s eyes as seeing it from inside his mind, a concept underscored by the conceit of having billboards popping up carrying only one word, one that reflects the particular emotion Alfies experiencing.
Also like the original, Law addresses the camera directly, speaking in a cozy stream-of-consciousness about his narcissistic philosophy of life, slipping easily from witty to evil to oddly prescient while keeping an enormous blind spot about himself in full view while never seeing it himself. Law’s performance, tousled hair and finely calibrated irresistible smile, reveals the troubled depths from which that philosophy springs. There is to that insouciance a palpable neediness that engages the audience in spite of itself. He has an incandescent sadness lurking in the twinkling eyes that is at once infinitely poignant and oddly brave, especially when it erupts with an almost primal ferocity to the surprise of no one except Alfie.
ALFIE is a smart film that respects the original while making the same sort of trenchant comments about its time that the 1966 version did about its time. It’s a deeply satisfying, fully realized portrait of someone beyond help, but not beyond pity. And irresistible to the end.