A good deal of the bite of the 1966 original has disappeared in this remake of “Alfie,” which emerges, in the hands of Charles Shyer, as a pleasant but fairly toothless cautionary tale about the dangers of hedonism in a world where youthful self-absorption can lead to a bleak, lonely future. Jude Law certainly makes a more likable protagonist than Michael Caine did nearly forty years ago; back in the days of swinging London, the latter’s Alfie was a Cockney cad through and through, utterly oblivious to the damage his actions might have on the women he so easily seduced and then so blithely tossed aside. Law’s contemporary Alfie, transplanted to present-day Manhattan, still explains himself directly to the audience and beds a succession of partners, but he’s a more refined fellow, better dressed and much more conventionally handsome. He’s also, from the very start, a good deal more empathetic; even when he’s flippant, you can see that there’s a flame of conscience behind the facade that’s just waiting to burst out. Although he’s making the rounds, he’s drawn back to the closest thing he has to a permanent girlfriend, Julie (Marisa Tomei), a single mother with an adorable young son on whom he dotes. He obviously feels for his best buddy Marlon (Omar Epps) when the guy runs into a rough patch with his girlfriend Lonette (Nia Long), and though he beds her, he regrets it, and escorts her to a proper clinic when she announces she’s pregnant. He takes to heart the advice given him by sage widower Joe (Dick Latessa), whom he meets while experiencing a bout of erectile dysfunction, about not losing those he really loves. He invites Nikki (Sienna Miller), a gorgeous party girl he fancies, to move in with him, and though he eventually breaks things off with her, he regrets having to do so. He even commiserates with his part-farcical, part-appalling limousine-service boss Wing (Gedde Watanabe) when the man’s wife, whom he’s browbeaten for years, suddenly leaves him.
This, then, is an Alfie who may be introduced as a soulless philanderer, sharing an evening with the randy trophy wife (Jane Krakowski) who’s a regular customer of his limousine service in more ways than one, but within twenty minutes we get the idea that he’s not nearly as irredeemable as he himself thinks. He seems already to suffer as much as he enjoys himself–in that erectile dysfunction episode and another when his health is even more seriously threatened, he becomes positively soap-operatic–and so when rich-bitch Liz (Susan Sarandon) not only uses him more callously than he’s used other women but informs him bluntly that he’s getting somewhat over the hill, and the poor boy’s eyes start filling with tears, you can feel your heartstrings being tugged–especially since you know he’s also lost, probably irretrievably, his chance for true love with Julie and his friendship with Marlon. By the close Law’s Alfie is a pathetic figure, not in the sense that Caine’s was–as a man still pretty blind to his own cruelty–but as a figure who’s come to realize the waywardness of his past conduct and is left alone in the falling snow, just at the cusp of possible redemption. The screenplay for this new “Alfie” was based by Shyer and Elaine Pope not only on that of the earlier film, but on Bill Naughton’s original play and novel, to which the scripters have added plenty of elements of their own devising. It would take more investigative work that this reviewer is willing or able to perform to discern how much of the result comes from the existing sources and how much is new invention. But it’s clear that Alfie has been transformed into a rather more sympathetic figure for this Age of Oprah, and Law–who projects a considerably softer, gentler, less assured and aggressive fellow, fits the contours of the new role admirably. He certainly makes an engaging figure whom you’re rooting for to mature and find his moral bearings. Among the women, Tomei is attractive and warm, and Sarandon appropriately brusque and knowing, while Krakowski offers a basic hottie caricature and Miller captures the almost manic-depressive character of the playgirl quite well, just as Long does Lonette’s vigor and common sense. On the male side, Epps has Marlon’s combination of manliness and doubt down pat, and Latessa makes an amiably crotchety confidante. Watanabe, on the other hand, comes on too strong as Alfie’s cranky boss, and Jefferson Mays is bizarrely surreal as the doctor who unaccountably cures one of Alfie’s afflictions only to suggest that he might have a more serious one. Technically the film has the sheen that Shyer’s previous pictures have all possessed, and there’s good use of background music that includes both old favorites (though the original “What’s It All About?” is heard only fleetingly) and new pieces from Mick Jagger, Dave Stewart and John Powell.
There’s not much chance that the Law-Shyer “Alfie” will enjoy the notoriety or longevity that the 1966 version achieved; it’s a much milder, more comforting version of the story, structured to avoid being offensive in an age that at least preaches gender equality and political correctness and exalts sensitivity among men and well as women. But if it’s been reduced to cinematic pablum, it’s still fairly palatable due to its engaging cast and a glossy production. And at least it’s preferable to the awful 1975 follow-up to the original, “Alfie Darling,” which put Alan Price, formerly of The Animals, in the title role. Now there’s a piece of trivia for you.