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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Ten Years Later... Alfie (2004)

On this day in 2004

Director: Charles Shyer
Starring: Jude Law, Susan Sarandon, Marisa Tomei, Sienna Miller, Nia Long, Omar Epps

2004 was going to be the year of Jude Law. After breaking through in 1999 with his supporting turn in The Talented Mr. Ripley (and earning his first Oscar nomination in the process), Law's appearances in film were fairly sporadic, with him starring in just one film a year (save for 2001, when he had a leading role in Enemy at the Gates and a supporting role in A.I. Artificial Intelligence) until 2004 when, coming off his second Oscar nomination (for Cold Mountain), he would have 6 films in theaters. The films and his roles varied from being part of the ensemble in the would-be prestige film Closer, playing the lead in the would-be special effect game changer Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, providing voice work as the narrator in the would-be franchise starting Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, playing a cameo role in The Aviator, being part of the ensemble in David O. Russsell's least appreciated film I Heart Huckabees, and playing the lead in the deeply unnecessary and ultimately ill-conceived remake of the 1960s classic Alfie. That Law's big year is probably best remembered for a joke Chris Rock made at the Oscars and Sean Penn's snitty, on-air response, probably says it all about the collective success of his various performances in 2004.

The Story

A womanizer jumps from woman to woman (to woman), extolling the virtues of being a footloose and fancy free bachelor in New York, even as his experiences make him question whether he's really getting what he wants.

The View From 2004:

The Good: "On its own terms, it's funny at times and finally sad and sweet. Alfie learns that to lie to women is to lie to himself about them. Law's best scenes are when he doggedly tries to keep smiling as his lifestyle grows grim and depressing. He's sold himself on life as a ladies' man, and is beginning to realize he is his only customer." - Roger Ebert

The Bad: "This is a remake of the judgmental 1966 romp with Michael Caine as a 'bird' -chasing dog. Shyer's version is a thing of infinite emptiness and nauseating vanity. It's not funny, alluring, affecting, or erotic, just conceited." - Wesley Morris, Boston Globe

The View from 2014

I've never seen the original Alfie, so I can't directly compare the two films, but you don't need to have seen both in order to understand why the newer version fails. The original was made before the AIDS crisis and before second-wave feminism really started to gather steam, so the culture in which it was made was very different and what would play as deeply misogynist now may have seemed merely "of the moment" then. In the newer version, though, Alfie's views and actions are misogynist in a way that seems less like ordinary, every day kind of casual misogyny than a weird, retrograde misogyny that makes Alfie seem like he has more in common with Austin Powers than a thirty-something man in the 21st century. This is the sort of cartoonish misogyny that the first two thirds of Alfie are dealing in: at one point a female character is referred to as "it" and a little while later a urinal is referred to as "she."

Alfie the film would work better if it weren't so confused about its own point of view. The film is structured like a redemption tale, beginning with its callous protagonist (Jude Law) deciding to end things with a woman he meets with on the regular (Jane Krakowski) by simply fading out of her life and no longer calling her. He goes right from his last tryst with her to the home of his sort-of girlfriend (Marisa Tomei), who later dumps him after discovering his infidelity - a discovery which is made easy because Alfie has so little respect for her intelligence that he disposes of the evidence of his cheating in her home. Alfie also sleeps with the ex-girlfriend (Nia Long) of his best friend (Omar Epps), who his friend is actively trying to get back, gets involved with a young woman with mental health issues (Sienna Miller), and then when her issues get to be too much for him he responds by getting involved with a wealth older woman (Susan Sarandon). The third act brings about some comeuppance, but it's important to note that the sorrow that Alfie feels at the end is less for the people that he's hurt and more for himself and the things that he's missed out on by treating women as disposable commodities. The film is, on the one hand, not endorsing Alfie's lifestyle (after all, he ends up sad and alone in the end), but on the other hand, it isn't really standing in judgment against Alfie's views as much as it would seem. This isn't a story where Alfie discovers that women are people with inherent value for who they are so much as he discovers that women have value for what they do for him, and the film presents that as an acceptable lesson. Further, it isn't Alfie the character who utters the word "she" in reference to the urinal (that comes from a character that Alfie later goes to for advice because he's older and seems to have things figured out), which means that this is coming from Alfie the film; and even though the film managed to attract a few extremely over-qualified actresses to fill the female roles, that doesn't change the fact that those roles are one-dimensional. The women in the film aren't "people," they're types who collectively function to help teach Alfie how to be a better human being.

But, then, even Alfie himself doesn't really have that much depth, a fact which director (and co-writer) Charles Shyer tries to make up for by visually telegraphing what Alfie is meant to be feeling at any moment. He sees his ex-girlfriend celebrating her son's birthday and sitting next to a man who may or may not be her new boyfriend, and the shot pans back to show that the group is sitting in a restaurant called "Desire." Alfie's feeling a little blue? Focus in on a poster in his apartment, specifically on the word "Lost" written across it. Alfie finds himself in a situation he hadn't anticipated and struggles to sort out his feelings about it? Have him stand in front of a wall that has the word "Search" scrawled across it. As directed by Shyer, Alfie is often stylist but it gains no points for subtlety.

I'm being pretty hard on Alfie, but it actually isn't a terrible film. It's not a good film, either, but it isn't a film without value. Despite the film's weak characterization, there actually are a few moments that are truly affecting, as there would almost have to be given a cast so full of fine actors. In particular, the scene in which Alfie sees his now former best friend just after discovering that he's fathered a child is incredibly well done by Law and, especially, by Epps, and Sarandon brings an unaffected sensuality to her role which, had the film itself been able to exude same, it might have been successful enough as a mood piece to cover up for its deficiencies elsewhere. Alfie strives to be cool, but instead ends up being bland.


Wendell Ottley said...

Excellent review, I really enjoyed reading this. I watched it shortly after it came out. I liked it, mostly for the performances, but I thought the story worked well enough. However, the way I see movies has changed a lot since then so I'm not sure what I would think of it now, especially in light of your very valid points. Thanks again for such a thoughtful review.

Norma Desmond said...

Yeah, I saw it when it was out in theaters and remember liking it but, as you say, the way you see movies changes as you get older so watching it now I was more keyed in to certain things than I would have been then.