Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with an early, early look at the upcoming remake of the Michael Caine classic ALFIE, starring Jude Law in the titular role. The below reviewer is a fan of the original and has more than a few bones to pick with this flick and he does it in a spoiler-heavy, long and incredibly detailed way, so those with aspoilerphobia (fear of spoilers) might want to steer clear. For the rest of you, here's Moonshine!
Moonshine, checking in again. I took in a private screening of ALFIE on the Paramount lot a couple weeks ago (with Jude Law, director Charles Shyer, and Paramount diva Sherry Lansing on hand to see the audience's reactions), and I thought I'd chip in a review. Well, actually, let's not call it a review, let's call it a comparison to the original because I'm huge fan of the original, and if you're going to chance a remake then comparisons are inevitable. So I'm going whole hog. If you don't like spoilers, look away now.
First off, a few words about the original. Straggling in at the tail end of the kitchen-sink realism trend in British filmmaking, the original ALFIE is a near-perfect snapshot of a specific time and place. It's more colorful than just about any of its other kitchen-sink contemporaries, but that's perfectly appropriate. The movie's generally classed as a bawdy comedy about a swinging sixties playboy, but in reality it's a grim portrait of a self-absorbed womanizer who happens to be witty. That Alfie is still often described as a loveable guy is a testament to the brilliance of Michael Caine's performance. I mean, Alfie's a total turd. The way he treats women, his friends, and just about everyone in his life is abhorrent. Nevermind his oft-quoted tendency to refer to women as "birds," just try to count how many times Alfie refers to a woman as "it" and you'll see what a cad he is. Still, even with his boorish behavior, you can't help but hope Alfie will find some kind of happy ending. That he doesn't is what makes the movie near-perfect in my book.
Getting back to Caine, there's a reason he named his autobiography "What's It All About," after Alfie's oft-repeated final line. And there's a reason Mike Myers tapped Caine to play Austin Powers' father. The reason for both is Alfie. In spite of what the film and the role are really about, there's just this definitive image that the character of Alfie projects. He's the randy scamp, who can't get enough of women. He treats them all like shit and still maintains that loveable air. Alfie's often been imitated, but seldom equalled. So when I first heard that a remake of Alfie was on the production slate, I thought, "WHY???" The director of the project, Charles Shyer, certainly didn't inspire confidence either. Not that he's a bad filmmaker, I just associate him with crowd-pleaser fluff. ALFIE should never be turned into crowd-pleasing fluff.
So, anyway, given my affection for the original, why would I even venture out for a screening of this retread? Well, I was intrigued by the casting. Jude Law as Alfie, Susan Sarandon taking over the role played by Shelley Winters in the original, and Marisa Tomei, Nia Long, Sienna Miller and Jane Krakowski as a few of Alfie's "birds" seemed like a pretty fine cast to me. And, at the very least, the casting of Michael Caine is what made the original ALFIE a great film in the first place. I mean, sure, you've got Lewis Gilbert directing, and he'd go on to make a good Sean Connery 007 flick and a couple really bad Roger Moore ones, as well as Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine. But you don't exactly think of ALFIE as a Lewis Gilbert film. It's a Michael Caine movie. So the cast they put together for this remake seemed to be a fairly good start.
On to the movie itself, I'd be extremely generous if I even said it was okay. A few choice scenes were excellent and I'll get to those, some of it was middling, and a lot of it was total crap.
Unlike the original, the remake has been transplanted from swinging England to modern day New York City. I didn't have a huge problem with this, though I wish they would have made New York City more of a lively character in the film. It seemed from Alfie's opening monologue that it might be, but in the end it just felt like a set to me.
Just like the original, Alfie talks to the audience throughout, narrating the action and confessing his thoughts. For the original, this was a unique storytelling device. But by now it's a played-out cliche, and that's how it came across for this remake. Funny at first, but still a cliche. Michael Caine's Alfie drew you into the picture--you were his unseen confidante. Jude's Alfie felt more like a narrator to me, practically telling you when and where you were supposed to laugh, or feel appalled by his behavior, or feel sad. And even without the narration, there's a visual device that Shyer uses that I found overbearing. Throughout the film, billboards are glimpsed with single words on them, like DESIRE. They're like insidious chapter titles, pointing you towards the proper emotion or context you should see the following scene in, and it grew irritating to me. By the end of the movie, I half-expected to see a billboard saying APPLAUSE.
The remake follows the basic structure of the original ALFIE, but adds small flourishes to make the situations seem slightly unique. Jane Krakowski shows up in the opening segment as a married woman boffing Alfie in a car, and just as in the original Alfie promises the audience that she won't be seen again. Unlike the original film, this time the promise proves to be true, and in my opinion that was a huge mistake on the part of the filmmakers. In the original, Alfie treats this character (named Siddie) as the most disposable "bird" we'll see in the film. He tells us we won't see her again, but indeed she does turn up near the end, at Alfie's lowest moment, and she rejects him. Her rejection is the final humiliation that leads him into his closing soliloquy. I suppose one could argue that Alfie suffers plenty of other humiliations, so why just heap on another, but in the original this character served as a perfect bookend. Those who won't have seen the original won't miss that closing bookend, but those who have seen it probably will. I certainly did. There are way too many changes/tweaks like this throughout the film.
The most significant relationship in the original Alfie's life was Julia Foster's Gilda, a shy girl so in love with Alfie that she tries to overlook his callousness towards her. She bears Alfie a son, but soon realizes that Alfie will never change and decides to marry a sweet male friend named Humphrey, who's just as in love with her as she is with Alfie. In this new Alfie, Marisa Tomei plays the Gilda equivalent, but true to the times she's a much stronger woman. Instead of getting pregnant by Alfie, she's already got a son who Alfie likes even more than her. And almost immediately, she dismisses Alfie from her romantic life after she busts him cheating on her. In the earliest scenes, Marisa has an equivalent lovesick Humphrey-type circling around her to pluck her away from Alfie, but after the early scenes this guy just vanishes, and Marisa turns up near the end with some other strange guy we've never met. And it's just wrong! In the original, Julia settled on Humphrey, and ended up finding a simple happiness that Alfie ended up admiring from afar. In this new one, Marisa moves on to Stud #2. Did she settle? Will she be happy with him? Who knows? All we know is that Alfie didn't get her, which left me wanting to shout at the screen, "So, what?" Alfie didn't the girl. Who cares? Alfie doesn't get lots of girls. But this one was important, and in this new version, she doesn't feel as important as she should.
Next up, we're introduced to Alfie's best friend, Omar Epps, who works with Alfie as a chauffeur, and who's working with him to put together a business plan to buy the business from their boss, Gedde Wattanabe (playing Mr. Wing, a fuming, frantic, middle-aged version of Long Duk Dong). All of this stuff is new, and it's absolutely unnecessary. Wattanabe's character is pointless, except to add some humor in the form of a virtually incomprehensible foreigner (think "Father of the Bride's" character Franck, played by Martin Short). In a stupid subplot, Mr. Wing treats his wife like shit and she ultimately leaves him. Since this is the "nice" remake of Alfie, Alfie encourages Mr. Wing to write poetry to woo Mrs. Wing back, but this is the last we see or hear of Mr. Wing, let alone whether or not he wins her back.
Back to Omar's character. He's a complete rewrite of a character from the original. In that film, Alfie gets a health scare, which turns out to be spots on his lung. Alfie has a health scare in this one too (a lump on his cock, I'm not kidding!), but it's a completely unrelated plot and is quickly abandoned. Anyway, while in the hospital for treatment of his lung ailment, the original Alfie befriends Harry Clamacraft, the man in the bed next to him. To the camera, Alfie makes fun of the pathetically co-dependent life Harry shares with his wife, Lily. Even after Alfie is released from the hospital, he continues to visit Harry, and Harry eventually convinces Alfie to take Lily out on an afternoon excursion to boost her spirits. And naturally Alfie ends up fucking her. The big punctuation mark to this storyline is that Alfie gets her pregnant, and the abortion segment that follows is utterly horrific and depressing, and easily the most outstanding dramatic material in the original film. Denholm Elliott has only about 5 minutes onscreen, but his presence and his performance are absolutely chilling.
In Alfie 2004, Omar's bartender girlfriend, Nia Long, has just broken up with him. Alfie hangs out with her one late night, ostensibly to talk up Omar and boost his chances for a reunion, but instead he and Nia end up fucking on a pool table (in an admittedly hot scene). The next morning, Omar's happy because Nia wants him back. Soon after, Nia tells Alfie that she's pregnant, and she asks Alfie to take her to an abortion clinic, but makes him wait outside. Afterwards, she and Omar move to upstate New York, leaving only a letter of explanation behind for Alfie. So much for the business plan, eh? Yet another plot thread that's introduced and promptly forgotten. Since I've spoiled everything else, might as well tell you that we later find out that Nia kept the baby because she thought there was a possibility it might be Omar's. But it was Alfie's, and Omar ends up with the high morals points because he's willing to stick with his girl and a kid that isn't his own. And in an uncomfortable meeting with Alfie, Omar basically tells Alfie how much he hurts everyone, even though he doesn't intend to hurt anybody. Awww! Cue the sappy music.
What's wrong about this entire storyline is that Omar's character is now Alfie's best friend. In the original film, Alfie was only a casual friend of the character of Harry, and the impact of his betrayal is seen only from what it does to Alfie and Lily. The detachment Alfie shows towards Harry is exactly the same kind of detachment he exhibits in all aspects of his life. He has no emotional investment in anyone, and that's what's heartbreaking about his character. But in Alfie 2004, Alfie's just a sweetheart who can't help himself from hurting those around him.
The original film's Alfie picks up a girl named Annie (played by Jane Asher) simply for the sport of stealing her from another male acquaintance. When Annie gets a little too clingy and cozy living with Alfie, he kicks her out. End of Annie. In this version, Annie's equivalent is played by Sienna Miller. Alfie picks her up because it's Christmas Eve, which he calls the loneliest night of the year. Though not the same circumstances, I was pleased that Alfie picked up Sienna just for the challenge of trying to score. Sienna's section of the film is easily some of the best material this remake has to offer. She's a wild, apparently bipolar drunk, and at first she and Alfie get along fine, having fun being the party-mad youngsters they want to pretend they are. But Sienna quickly goes off her meds, and starts getting creepily domestic, starting to paint a wall in Alfie's apartment and cooking him dinner when he doesn't want it. As in the original, when the clinginess kicks in, Alfie gives her the boot. And for once, this film finally stays true in spirit to a segment from the original.
The last prominent "bird" from the original was Shelley Winters' Ruby, a lusty older woman who is Alfie's female equal. Alfie boldly flirts with her in public while she's with a wealthier, older man, who Alfie initially mistakes for her husband. We soon find that Ruby is just like Alfie, a woman who moves from man to man either for the fun of it or for his money, or both. In probably this film's most perfect casting work, Susan Sarandon takes on this role and she's sensational. The circumstances are somewhat changed. Whereas Shelley's character wasn't much more than a kept woman who liked to fuck around, Susan's character is an independently wealthy businesswoman who likes to fuck around. She's this Alfie's equal and quite a lot more. In fact, despite Alfie's obliviousness to it, she's very much his superior. In a nod to one of the abandoned plot threads, she plays advisor to Alfie on his quest to buy the limousine business by offering to read his business plan. In their one seduction scene, Susan cooks up a batch of contraband absinthe (which she snuck into the U.S. in Listerine bottles), and it's a trippy, sexy scene. I'm as gay as they come, guys, and I wanted to fuck Susan more than I did Jude, so that oughta tell you something. Anyway, the only thing that goes wrong with this portion of the film is how the final moments between Susan and Alfie are played. In the original, Alfie, having gone into a spiral of self doubt after witnessing Lila's horrific abortion, kicking poor Annie out into the rain, and stumbling across the wedding of Gilda and Humphrey and seeing Humphrey happily playing daddy to Alfie's son, Alfie runs to Ruby, the only woman like him, the only woman who understands his life. And what does he find? Ruby fucking another stud. And when he belligerently pushes Ruby to explain what this new buck has that he doesn't have, Ruby tells Alfie bluntly, "He's younger than you." It's the perfect comeuppance, and when Alfie realizes what's just happened to him, you finally hope that maybe he's figured it out and can move on to being a better human being. In the new version, pretty much the set-up is the same. Guilted into feeling bad by Omar, flashing back to Marisa and her new boyfriend, feeling bad about kicking Sienna out at her lowest, Alfie runs to Susan and finds the same situation as with Ruby. Only with Susan, when Alfie forces her to admit that her new stud is younger, Susan clearly feels bad telling Alfie as much. And it screws up the ending, as far as I'm concerned.
The cruel way Ruby treats Alfie sends him fleeing. In not so many words, she basically tells him that he's pathetic and disposable, and he flees only to encounter Siddie, the girl we saw at the beginning. The girl he promised us we wouldn't see again. He tries to pick her up and she rejects him. The disposable "bird" disposes of Alfie, and then he finally takes stock of his life and gives us his famous line, "What's it all about?"
In this new version, Susan practically apologizes with Alfie in telling him that her other stud is younger. Alfie flees, takes stock of his life, and trots out the "What's it all about?" line. Only, what's changed? Nothing. He feels bad about stuff, but so what? He needs to feel humiliated and thrown out. This Alfie doesn't. And his closing "What's it all about?" question made me want to shout, "It's about 90 minutes of my life that I just wasted."
Extra trivia fact: there were no closing credits or
closing song. I heard one Paramount exec saying that
another early screening had the original Alfie theme
song sung by Cher on the closing credits and the
audience laughed. So they cut it out. They're
apparently trying to get Norah Jones to do this
version's theme. We'll see if they do.