It's the year of the monkey in the Chinese calendar and the year of the hound in Hollywood. In films as radically different as Sideways, Ray and now Alfie, men are sniffing skirts with a single-mindedness that brings to mind Warren Beatty cruising through Shampoo, a blow-dryer tucked in his jeans.
Filled with womanizers who at once love too much and not quite enough, these films don't really resurrect the hound and, in truth, he never went away. They simply ask you to look deep in those puppy eyes and see the all-too-human man beneath, quivering with heartfelt need, not just animal impulse.
Men often behave sexually badly in movies (see, at your peril, the oeuvre of the filmmaker James Toback), but it's rare that the hound doesn't get his comeuppance. It's usually only in comedy that such beasts stay true to their baser selves, as in Bad Santa, where Billy Bob Thornton's womanizing is a self-consciously nasty piece with his boozing and cursing.
The comedy in Alfie is plentiful but bittersweet, and the character's bad behavior pleases more than it repels, principally because the star Jude Law's beauty and easy charm go a long way to softening the edges. Unlike the 1966 British film on which it is based, with its abrasive star-making turn from Michael Caine, the new Alfie doesn't chase social significance -- it just wants us to have a good time.
The director Charles Shyer, who wrote the screenplay with Elaine Pope, makes surrender easy. Transposed from swinging London to contemporary New York, the new Alfie is closely based on the original film, which was written by Bill Naughton, who adapted it from his stage play. The story's observations about male behavior aren't earth shattering (news flash: men can be cruel), but what gives it its kick is how Alfie takes the film audience into his confidence.
Directed by: Charles Shyer
Jude Law (Alfie), Renee Taylor (Lu Schnitman), Jane Krakowski (Dorie), Susan Sarandon (Liz), Sienna Miller (Nikki), Jeff Harding (Phil), Marisa Tomei (Julie)
Running time: 103 minutes
Taiwan Release: today
In both films, the character talks directly into the camera, a disarming strategy that brings us closer to this serial seducer than we might want. Playing narrator turns Alfie into a tour guide and something of his own defense attorney; it also means he has to enrapture the audience along with his conquests.
Seducing the audience can't be hard work for Law. Certainly Shyer seems besotted by his star, and it's easy to see why, even if this isn't one of the actor's greatest performances.
Law is every bit the actor Caine was when the older man played the role, and is indeed a more technically versatile performer. But he hasn't been asked to go deep in Alfie, to poke about its darker cobwebbed corners. (Or, as he did so brilliantly in The Talented Mr. Ripley, keep us at a chilly remove from his beauty.)
And because Law either can't or won't seize the screen the way that Caine does, who grabs it and never lets go, his Alfie feels strangely soft, less of a predator than an accidental heartbreaker.
As he travels from barroom to bedroom, Alfie keeps company with a range of women, including a neglected wife (Jane Krakowski), a lonely mother (Marisa Tomei), a cosmetics mogul (an excellent Susan Sarandon) and a party girl (Sienna Miller), whose dependence on mood enhancers eventually extends to this Lothario.
Along with his only male friend, a one-time player (Omar Epps) with a single consuming distraction (Nia Long), Alfie dreams of starting his own business, but such aspirations sputter alongside the work of seduction. Like Samantha, the erotically addled single played by Kim Cattrall in Sex and the City, Alfie has pulchritude on the brain and not much else.