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Alfie Bits 

Charles Shyer's Alfie is a remake of the 1966 British film that garnered Michael Caine an Oscar nomination and made him a star. Shyer's version is unlikely to have the same impact for Jude Law, though the current star is very good here. The four-decade difference in the two films' settings has rendered today's version less biting and oddly sadder. The new script changes and modernizes much, particularly its female characters, but it never quite convinces us a contemporary Alfie wouldn't require a lot more skill at self-rationalization.

Shyer's Alfie is the story of a British immigrant (Law) who resides in New York, supports himself as a limousine driver and lives to boink. Like the original Alfie, this one, too, imparts his hedonistic philosophy directly to the camera. He likes sex, likes his job because it provides him daily opportunities to meet new women and freely acknowledges his squeamishness about any emotional involvement not directly connected to an orgasm.

Like the title character in Francois Truffaut's The Man Who Loved Women or Warren Beatty's hairdresser character in Shampoo, Alfie is an equal opportunity womanizer. He has no preferences for hair color, marital status or professional background. Even age doesn't matter a great deal. Alfie proudly proclaims a long list of conquests, all abandoned as gently as possible at the first hint of some love transcending the purely physical. We meet five of his women, each quite different from the next.

Dorie (Jane Krakowski) is married to a man who has lost interest in her sexually. Dorie mistakes Alfie's ardor and calculated willingness to cuddle after congress as an indication of a sensitivity and affection he doesn't possess. They go at it like alley cats in the back seat of his limo; then she straightens her clothes and rushes off to meet the husband who ignores her. Dorie may not want a lot more from Alfie than more of the same, but he can't even be counted on for that. "Whenever you meet a good looking woman," Alfie counsels, "you need to remember she's just someone another guy has gotten tired of shagging." Winning, no?

The one woman Alfie has dangerously tender feelings for is Julie (Marisa Tomei). She's a single mom with an adorable little boy about 5. Alfie likes the child and the mom, too. But faithfulness to Julie would violate the only code he lives by. That code certainly doesn't include loyalty or friendship. Alfie is best friends with a black co-worker named Marlon (Omar Epps) who shares some of Alfie's reservations about commitment. That has damaged Marlon's longtime relationship with Lonette (Nia Long). But now that Lonette is playing hard to get, Marlon is anxious to settle down. And Alfie ought to stay away from Lonette for everybody's sake. But then, one rainy night of shots and beer, Lonette joins the long list of Alfie's bedmates.

At Christmas one year, Alfie picks up a beautiful model named Nikki (Sienna Miller) who would seem to be his dream woman. Nikki is as sexually voracious as Alfie is, and she seems interested in nothing beyond the very moment she's in. Alas, Alfie even grows tired of Nikki. The one woman Alfie can't treat as disposable is Liz (Susan Sarandon), and that's because she's precisely as rapacious as he is. Alfie doesn't see it coming, but he won't last long enough with Liz to dump her.

In the original, Michael Caine's Alfie dehumanizes women and connects with their humiliation at his hands only as the film ends. Until he tastes some of the same callousness at the hands of Shelley Winters' Ruby, Caine's Alfie is indifferent to the suffering he causes. Law's Alfie wants to indulge his selfishness while somehow avoiding the pain he causes. He doesn't want to be faithful, but he nonetheless hopes to be liked. This aspect of the film's internal psycho drama doesn't quite work. In short, Caine is believable in the context of the 1960s, but Law's Alfie is not buttressed with nearly enough excuses to ring true as a twentysomething in today's Manhattan. The acting in this picture, though, is superb. Just as Caine did, Law manages to make you detest Alfie and feel sorry for him, too. Sarandon makes Liz a much more alluring and complex character than Winters' Ruby. They both deliver the same knock-out line, but Winters declares it with a sneer while Sarandon utters it with regret and a bit of self-indictment. Long and Epps don't get a lot of screen time, but both are memorable. The wounds both exhibit for having fallen for a time into Alfie's orbit actually start the process of opening his eyes. But this picture may be longest remembered as the breakout performance of Sienna Miller. From the beginning, she manages to reveal the vulnerability behind the mask of her wildness. And the desperate stoicism with which she accepts Alfie's betrayal provides the film its most emotionally piercing moment.

click to enlarge Drinking buddies: Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church make for an odd oenophile couple in Sideways.
  • Drinking buddies: Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church make for an odd oenophile couple in Sideways.
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