[National Review Online, November 9, 2004]
If you’re of a certain age, when you hear the name "Alfie" a song immediately starts up in your head. You might even be able to sing mentally through the entire theme (though for some of us it veers into a part where Tom Jones is going "wo, wo wo," and then there’s a verse about Georgy Girl). But the line you remember for sure is, "What’s it all about, Alfie?" In other words, What is the meaning of life? Is it only about pleasure? Does "life belong only to the strong"? What about that "old Golden Rule"? Wo, wo wo?
The original "Alfie," made in 1966 with Michael Caine in the title role, asked some big questions about the meaning of life. The new version, starring Jude Law, doesn’t. While the new release has much to admire - strong performances, clever design, beguiling costumes - it lacks the punch of the original. Law’s version is a buddy movie, and the audience is the buddy.
This buddiness is achieved simply enough by having Law speak directly to the camera. He’s in every scene, and frequently turns away from a conversation with another character to tell us his inner thoughts. The film presents him as a handsome, debonair rascal, and we identify, or sympathize, or feel envious as we tag along behind this lovely tousled youth. (His coiffeur and other design elements - "birds" in exaggerated eye makeup, Law in a jacket so tight he looks like an organgrinder’s monkey - make a witty bow to the original film.) This is a charming Alfie.
Not so the Michael Caine version. He too chats up the camera, and we feel some sympathy, though subtle elements contrive to keep us at analytical arm’s length. His contempt for women is sociopathic. (The closest thing on screen is Tom Cruise as Frank T. J. Mackey in "Magnolia" , with his angry "Seduce and Destroy" seminar.) We also perceive that Alfie is a lower-class scrounger, though Americans won’t feel the same distaste that the British director expected. And we notice that Alfie, while clever, is not too bright. He’s frequently a step behind the people around him. Caine’s Alfie sometimes stops talking to the camera and just gazes at us through hooded eyes as if he’s wondering whether we buy his act.
Michael Caine, an excellent actor, was able to mask his native intelligence and convincingly project animal simplicity. Jude Law, a pretty-good actor, may not be able to do this, but the script doesn’t ask him to try. His Alfie is likeable, sophisticated, even sensitive, with winning metrosexual attributes. He is impossibly gorgeous. There’s a scene in each movie where Alfie takes off his shirt. Caine reveals a believable human chest, soft around the edges, sprinkled with freckles and hair. Law looks like he just rolled out of the Vac-u-Form machine. When you wonder why those French post-modernists keep yammering about the pervasiveness of visual spectacle, and how manufactured unreality swamps us until it overwhelms our sense of what is real, and we get swept into a simulation, take another look at Law’s chest.
New Alfie doesn’t let us see the rest of his world. The older film showed cuckolded husbands and other characters in fully-rounded, sympathetic ways. We saw the damage Alfie did. New Alfie compels us to identify ceaselessly with him, and we’re marched through the ups and downs of his life firmly gripped by the elbow.
Each film ends with the same monologue, but today it comes as more of a shocker. After experiencing enough of the downs, Law turns to the camera and, in a close-up that fills the screen, delivers an emphatic speech that amounts to a "Don’t do drugs and stay in school, kids" public service announcement for the soldiers of the sexual revolution.
"I used to think I had the best end of the deal. What have I got, really? I don’t depend on nobody, nobody depends on me. But I don’t have peace of mind, and if you don’t have that, you don’t have nothing. So what’s the answer, that’s what I keep asking myself. What’s it all about — you know what I mean?"
The guy whose life we’ve been living for the last two hours advises us not to try this at home. But what resources does he, or we for that matter, have to do anything differently? In the novel, though neither film, the moment of insight doesn’t last. Alfie swiftly returns his old ways. "Forgive yourself, Alfie, I said, for anything you’ve done wrong. After all, you’ve got to forgive yourself before you can forgive anybody else, if you see what I mean." We’ll stay on the merry-go-round until reality forces us off.
Caine’s performance paradoxically drives the audience to think the repercussions through further. His Alfie is so clueless that we, observing him, begin to get a clue. In a harrowing story line entirely missing from the new film, Alfie arranges an illegal abortion for a housewife he impregnated. When he returns to his apartment he finds that the "products of conception" have not been cleared from the kitchen table. As he circles the table the camera draws in tightly to his face and then just his eyes. Alfie crumples into tears and runs from the apartment.
Distraught, he tells a friend that he never expected to see "this perfectly formed being." He goes on, "I started praying or something, saying ‘God, help me,’ and things like that." Alfie says it "brings it home to you what you are when you see a helpless little thing like that lying in your hands. And I said, ‘Alfie, you know what you have done. You murdered him.’"
Woe, woe, woe. A film that tackled such ideas today might well stir us and help us to think through the "What’s it all about" questions. But the new Alfie has been sanitized for your protection. Welcome to the simulation.