Review: Alfie (dir. Charles Shyer, 2004)

One of my favorite films of all time is The Family Way, a comic drama from the mid-1960s about a newlywed couple from the north of England whose honeymoon plans fall through and who struggle with the fact that, a few months after the wedding, their marriage remains unconsummated, possibly because they are compelled by economic necessity to live with the husband’s parents. In one scene, the husband and wife go for a stroll through the town, where they are increasingly turned off by various public displays of affection as well as the nudge-nudge nods to sex that they see in the storefront-window advertisements. When they finally have a moment to themselves, the husband, frustrated by his impotence, reminds his wife of a time when they almost did have sex, before they were married; perhaps, he says, they should have done it then, just to break the ice, and she replies that, if she had lost her virginity then, she would not have been able to wear white at their wedding.

So, what’s that have to do with Alfie? Two things. First, The Family Way was based on a play by Bill Naughton, who also wrote the original stage and screen versions of Alfie, also back in the mid-1960s. Second, because it helps to put the original Alfie into its original context, at a time when the so-called sexual liberation was just beginning to go mainstream, even as traditional morals, gender roles and social customs continued to hold sway. The 1966 Alfie may have embodied, to some degree, the time and place known as “Swinging London,” but it also took place at a time when abortion was illegal and pregnant single women had to pretend to be married when they checked into the maternity ward. And Alfie himself, as played by Michael Caine, was not so much a charmer as he was a cold-blooded ladykiller who consistently referred to women as “it,” not “she,” and who flirted happily with nurses and laundrywomen on their professional turf while thinking nothing of turning other women into his own domestic slaves back home. But for all the attention his sexual exploits have received, Caine’s Alfie was marked by an even deeper restlessness, marked by insomnia and a profound awareness of his own mortality.

Needless to say, all that existential angst is somewhat muted in the current remake, which moves the title character to New York, gives him more feeling, and surrounds him with women who have a little more backbone. The new film, co-written and directed by Charles Shyer (who has specialized lately in remakes of warmer, fuzzier fare like Father of the Bride and The Parent Trap), with co-writer and Seinfeld veteran Elaine Pope giving the script a more feminine touch, also plays up the sensuality and hedonism of Alfie’s exploits in a way that the earlier film never quite did. In one early scene, Alfie (Jude Law, exhibiting the dashing charm that was mysteriously missing from Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow) has an encounter with a married woman (Jane Krakowski) in the back of the limo he drives, at the end of which he turns to the audience, says he is about to give his conquest some “obligatory cuddling,” and then proceeds to count quietly to three. All at once, it becomes clear: this is a kinder, gentler, funnier Alfie for the post-When Harry Met Sally age.

The lad is still a cad, though. After dropping off his passenger, Alfie drops in on a single mom (Marisa Tomei) who is sort of his quasi-regular girlfriend, though he shows up on this occasion not for sex or companionship but for her cooking. She quickly dumps him, though, when she finds that he threw another woman’s underwear away in her garbage bin. This is soon followed by an unplanned late-night pool-table tryst with Lonette (Nia Long), a bartender who just broke up with Alfie’s best friend Marlon (Omar Epps). No sooner does Alfie regret having come between these two people than they are reunited, thus allowing Alfie to tell himself he did the couple a favor. But then matters are complicated when Lonette discovers she is pregnant. To keep her fling with Alfie a secret, she and Alfie decide to terminate the pregnancy, lest the baby have any non-African-American features.

The original film turned the abortion of Alfie’s child into a traumatic, existential climax, in which the supposedly carefree playboy found himself moved to prayer, however perfunctory it may have been, and brooding over the fact that he had “murdered” his own child. The new film softens these edges, partly by moving the sequence to a much earlier point in the story, where its impact is cushioned by the events that follow, and partly by toning down the dialogue around this moment, so that Lonette will only say that she feels “empty,” while Alfie tells the audience how he regrets that he will never get to know his own child. This is not to say that the film in any way condones abortion — indeed, one could argue it goes the other route — but it does reflect a more permissive shift in social attitudes.

One other thing that has changed in the past 40 years is the frankness with which films refer to the male sex organs. The new film’s opening montage includes a tight close-up on the crotch of a Fleischer-era Superman model in Alfie’s apartment — thus underscoring both Alfie’s boyish irresponsibility (he declares he has never, ever made his own bed) as well as the fact that he is driven by his lusts. And there are numerous other references to our protagonist’s male anatomy besides, particularly during a subplot in which Alfie temporarily loses the ability to perform in bed. What’s more, as Alfie waits at the doctor’s office for his test results, he meets an older man named Joe (Dick Latessa) in the washroom, who apologizes for how long he must stand at the urinal before his business there is finished.

This, too, leads to a telling example of how the new film has made Alfie a nicer character, intensified our focus on his sexuality, and played down his non-sexual anxieties. In the original film, Alfie’s health problems were in his lungs, and although he did befriend an older man at a sanitorium, he needled the man with morbid thoughts of death and cynical speculations about that man’s wife and children before ultimately seducing the man’s wife herself. This time, however, Alfie looks up to Joe and turns to him for advice when his love life takes a bad turn and all his other friends seem to have abandoned him.

Changes like these are not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, to tell the original story all over again in the exact same form in the current cultural context would not make much sense, and if the new film seems a bit shallower than the original — well, these are shallower times. Marriage, religion, and the other traditions against which the older Alfie rebelled are not as established as they once were, and to some degree they have joined the ranks of acceptable options in a smorgasbord culture that takes everything in its stride; one line in the new film even hints at the increasing social acceptability of same-sex marriages.

In this day and age, it may be enough that a film draws our attention to the emotional pain that is caused, both to oneself and to others, by selfish lifestyles. Granted, there is something a little odd about hearing this lesson in a film that gives us scenes like the one where one character tells our titular lothario, “You never mean to hurt anybody, but you do, Alfie,” and then the soundtrack goes to a brand new song by Dave Stewart and Mick Jagger, the latter of whom once embodied London at its swingiest, and whose sexual escapades have famously caused no small amount of pain in their own right. Perhaps the new film does go out of its way to create sympathy for its devil, but as Mick sings over the closing credits, “Old habits die hard,” and if any impressionable young minds were to leave this film vowing not to form certain habits in the first place, then that would not be a bad thing.

3 stars (out of 4)

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Talk About It
Discussion starters

1. In one scene, Alfie has been thinking about God and death, but doesn’t have to worry about “partying with Lucifer” right now because his test results came back negative. Is his reaction realistic? How would you react if you had a brush with illness or possibly death? When should Alfie start worrying about his eternal fate?

2. What does the film say about abortion? Is it pro-choice or pro-life? Comparing the two versions of this film, which would have a bigger impact on a person like Alfie—witnessing an aborted fetus, or witnessing a live baby?

3. What do you think the film says about promiscuity? Does it support it or not? If some scenes encourage the audience to laugh at Alfie’s sexual prowess, does that mean they also encourage us to accept it? Do the more serious, or even tragic, elements later in the film outweigh the funny elements that we see at the very beginning?

The Family Corner
For parents to consider

Alfie is rated R for sexual content, some language and drug use. The film is all about the highs and lows of the sex life of a man who sleeps with numerous women, including references to abortion and erectile dysfunction. There are also scenes of marijuana and absinthe consumption.

A version of this review was first published at Christianity Today Movies.

About Peter T. Chattaway

Peter T. Chattaway was the regular film critic for BC Christian News from 1992 to 2011. In addition to his film column, which won multiple awards from the Evangelical Press Association, the Canadian Church Press and the Fellowship of Christian Newspapers, his news and opinion pieces have appeared in such publications as Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Bible Review and the Vancouver Sun. He also contributed essays to the books Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) and Scandalizing Jesus?: Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years on (Continuum, 2005).


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