Alfie (15)

Hey Jude, don't make it bad
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The Independent Culture

Why remake a great film? You may be inclined to ask yourself this question on exiting Alfie, a glossy update of Lewis Gilbert's 1966 classic. Few will be surprised by the irony that the original looks better than ever, while this new version feels laboured and implausible. So: what is the point of this movie? What's it all about?

Why remake a great film? You may be inclined to ask yourself this question on exiting Alfie, a glossy update of Lewis Gilbert's 1966 classic. Few will be surprised by the irony that the original looks better than ever, while this new version feels laboured and implausible. So: what is the point of this movie? What's it all about?

The Alfie of the 1960s may have had a jaunty step, but it didn't shrink from portraying a dispiriting era of TB wards, sexual seediness and backroom abortions. It was at once a comedy and a grim social document. The Alfie of 2004 shifts the action from pinched London to prosperous Manhattan, where everyone glows with health and the apartments are fabulous. In the title role, Jude Law only enhances this picturesque contentment, razzing around on his scooter and eliciting a smile or a wink from just about every passing bird - sorry, woman.

This Alfie would now be known as a toxic bachelor, clubbing women with sex and moving on when he becomes bored or they become needy. But director Charles Shyer and co-writer Elaine Pope are plainly so frightened of alienating the audience that they continually soften and sentimentalise the character.

The original Alfie lives with a woman briefly, then abandons her when their child becomes a burden. Law's Alfie also gets involved with a single mother (Marisa Tomei), only this time the child isn't his, so when he ditches her he is not seen as shirking familial responsibility. And there's a grindingly obvious effort to make him more "inclusive". The first Alfie was essentially a loner, but here he has a best friend, Marlon (Omar Epps), who's black. When Alfie has sex with Marlon's girlfriend Lonette (Nia Long), it's made clear it was a drunken one-nighter that both connived at. He's off the hook there, too.

But most painful is the difference between Law and Michael Caine, whose incarnation of the role brought iconic status. Law has spoken of his misgivings about taking a part so closely identified with Caine. He's right to feel nervous. Just to hear the way each delivers the line "Know what I mean?" illustrates a gulf in class, in both senses.

There may be an actor who could project the cruelty and cold insolence required, but that actor is not Law. He has handsomeness over Caine, but he can only adorn a scene rather than dominate it. The direct-to-camera address emphasises the misconception of the character: where Caine confides to us in the manner of a cheerily ruthless spiv, Law has a long-suffering look of boredom tempered by intimations of guilt. "We could, you know, move forward," he says to one girlfriend, sounding a little like Tony Blair.

The problem becomes acute when Alfie finally acknowledges where his bad behaviour has got him. His late scenes with Lonette and Marlon are nicely understated, perhaps the best in the film, but they serve only to remind us of the equivalent moment in Caine's sentimental education, and the look of self-hatred that crumples his face as he contemplates the abortionist's handiwork. (And who can forget Vivien Merchant's wail of anguish?)

The pathos also derives its force from the period. Caine's Alfie bed-hops in an age not yet fully alive to women's lib, his conquests barely able to fend for themselves: their reaction to his heartlessness is either meek or mute. This remake knows that women aren't a pushover any more, but the news apparently hasn't reached Alfie. In consequence, he's made to look not just sad but slightly dim.

Shyer's adaptation also feels woefully overcooked. Where the original slouched along to Sonny Rollins' jazz score, this one is larded with some terrible songs by Dave Stewart and Mick Jagger, and makes us wait until the closing credits for Joss Stone's version of "Alfie".

The wardrobe people have a ball dressing Law, forgetting that he's a chauffeur and not a model. When he falls for an older woman (Susan Sarandon), he's ushered into an apartment that appears to have been designed in tribute to Liberace. And, just to show us what a charmer Alfie can be, there's an excruciating scene in which he and a florist put together a lavish bouquet for his new lady friend.

Sarandon looks wonderful, though Shyer's screenplay also manages to foul up the great scene, the moment when Alfie realises he has been outmoded. "What's he got that I haven't - apart from long hair?" asked Caine, with a mix of irritation and puzzlement, and Shelley Winters' reply hits him like a cold slap.

Sarandon delivers the line much more gently: the film almost falls over itself trying to give its hero a soft landing. By the end, you realise that nothing's really been at stake; the whole thing has been a put-on. Know what I mean?

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