Alfie (2004): (Unnecessary) Remake of the 1966 Oscar Nominee, with Jude Law in Michael Caine’s Iconic Role

This pedestrian remake of the famous 1966 British film shows that the original text has lost its satirical bite.

Grade: C (*1/2* out of *****)

Time has not been kind to the character of Alfie Elkins, the swaggering cockney Don Juan, brilliantly played by Michael Caine in a career-making performance. Caine was the fourth choice for the part, which was turned down by Terence Stamp, Anthony Newly, and Laurence Harvey, due to the character’s immoral nature.

Alfie (1966): Michael Caine and Shelley Winters

The new Alfie lacks the sexual-cultural resonance of the original film, a zeitgeist picture.  It was made by Lewis Gilbert for a shoestring budget of $350,000, which is a tiny fraction of the remake’s budget.

Nonetheless, displaying a new kind of charisma and erotic appeal, Jude Law should become a leading man, given a better role..

In 1966, Alfie offered something fresh, thematically and stylistically, in the context of the sex comedies being made, particularly the American ones: Woody Allen and Mel Brooks have not made yet their bawdy comedies, and Neil Simon’s work was mostly restricted to the stage. Released in the same year as Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf Alfie signaled the demise of the old Production Code, Hollywood’s standard for self-imposed censorship.

By the time Alfie reached the big screen, the text had already existed as a radio play, a stage play, and a novel.

The novelty of the 1966 film resided in the textual frankness and directness with which Caine addressed the camera, as a selfish, both amoral than immoral, womanizer who doesn’t recognize any constraints in his endless conquests of women. Heavily reliant on voice-over narration, the film was an oral experience, with Alfie’s sexual encounters used as illustrations of a cold-hearted sexual hotshot.

The picture provided a star making role for Caine, who made the audience feel occasional sympathy for Alfie when, suddenly and belatedly, he begins to wonder whether his life with women was really worthwhile after all. At the time, the character’s immorality, and the abortion procurement scene, scared off three actors who turned down the role: Terence Stamp, Anthony Newly, and Laurence Harvey. Caine, then a beginning actor, grabbed the role, which he played to such perfection that people often identified him with it.

Much less handsome than Jude Law, Caine actually benefited from his lack of conventionally good looks. Narrating his own story, Caine brought out the guts in the dialogue, emphasizing the philosophy of a man whose motto is: “Find someone to love and live every day as though it’s your last.” Caine made Alfie’s character at once weak and endearing, despicable and amusing.

In the original film, after leaving the hospital (treated for a mild case of tuberculosis), Alfie takes up with Lily, the not so young wife of a fellow patient from the hospital. When she becomes pregnant, Alfie calls an abortionist so that her husband will not learn of their affair. The off screen operation shakes his values–his reaction to seeing the stillborn fetus was the film’s most moving scene.

But even in 1966, the elaborate screen version lost some of implicated pathos and edge of the original play. Like other films of its era, such as Darling, Alfie showed the new lifestyle of swinging London. Which meant that within a few years, Alfie, just like the other films, became as outdated as its bouffant hairdos and other fashions.

Alfie was nominated for five Oscars: Best Picture, Actor, Supporting Actress to Vivien Merchant, Adapted Screenplay for Bill Naughton, but the big winner in 1966 was A Man for All Seasons, a middle-brow film whose uplifting message was more easily digested by the conservative Academy. The popular song, Alfie, composed by Burt Bacharach with lyrics by Hal David, lost the Oscar to John Barry and Don Black’s title tune for Born Free.

The new updated is directed by Charles Shyer (The Father of the Bride movies and the abysmal The Affair of the Necklace), who shows improvement as a filmmaker. The story is set in contemporary Manhattan, but the amorous adventures of a sexual predator whose life is finally set in order when confronted with a personal crisis lacks resonance or immediacy.

In the current reinvention, Alfie is an irresistible womanizer who has taken up residence in New York, where he works as a limo driver, chauffeuring the wealthy while occasionally making love to his female clients in the backseat. His ambition is to make enough to get by, but his primary focus is the pleasure of the flesh, hoping to make love to as many beautiful women as possible–without having any responsibilities or commitments. When it comes to shagging, Alfie holds that it’s all about “location, location, location.” He’s a matinee idol lucky with the girls, who can’t get enough of them.

While all the characters are still inspired by the original, the new Alfie has a different tempo and a different tone. The storyline still involves abortion, but, in congruence with the times, additional plot points have been retooled to create a lighter tone. Other changes concern Alfie’s comeuppance. In the original, he gets his comeuppance in the form of TB diagnosis, whereas in the new one, he suffers from occasional impotence.

In the new Alfie, it’s the women who have changed the most. Reflecting the zeitgeist, the female characters are more sexually voracious and more independent and uninhibited. Take Susan Sarandon’s older seductress, a self-made woman who travels extensively and unapologetically dates married and unmarried men. The other women in Alfie’s life are: Marisa Tomei as a swinging single mom; Jane Krakowski as a Long Island housewife cheating on her husband, Nia Long as the lover of Alfie’s best mate (Omar Epps), and Sienna Miller as a winsome waif with a drinking problem.

In its current shape, this Alfie is a semi-movie: a semi-stylish, semi-provocative, semi-philosophical tale of a womanizer forced to question his carefree existence. The original Alfie captured a blend of romp and reality that was genuinely shocking and innovative in its time. In contrast, the new movie strains to be chic, sexy, and shocking, but in reality is just a passable divertissement, a mildly enjoyable experience. Paramount probably hopes for Alfie to become a date film, though I doubt that it has the right ingredients for its potential audience.

The best reason to see this Alfie is Jude Law, who acquits himself admirably as a man of abundant charm but dubious morality. Present in each and every scene, Law is marvelous in the ongoing intimate dialogue with the audience, almost (but not quite) overcoming the limitations of a text that had lost its edge.