This is the fifth in a series of posts spotlighting the overlooked, underappreciated, and unfairly maligned movies of our time. Other films given the “In Defense Of” treatment include The Next Three Days, Multiplicity, Speed Racer, and Meet Joe Black.
Chris Black famously joked at the 2004 Oscars, “Who is Jude Law? Why is he in every movie I see?!” Law was indeed everywhere that year: Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Closer, The Aviator, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, and I Heart Huckabees. He was on the verge of becoming one of America’s biggest and brightest A-list stars. But that never really came to fruition. Instead, audiences suffered from Jude Law Overkill, and his star sort of fizzled after that. Oh sure, he’s still found the odd success, most notably playing Dr. Watson to Robert Downey, Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes, but he’s more of a handsome character actor now than bankable leading man.
That’s a shame because of all the movies released in 2004, the one that showcased Law at his most devilish and charming, and revealed the kind of star wattage he could generate if given the right vehicle, was also his most commercially unsuccessful. Alfie, a remake of the 1960s original starring Michael Caine, cost about $50 million to make and only ended up grossing $13 million domestically. A flop if ever there was one. And yet, though the box office take surely hurt Law’s A-list potential, the movie itself is one of those nifty hidden gems that people often overlook.
Remakes are always an iffy proposition, and anything starring the great Michael Caine is usually hands off. But Alfie was different. The original was truly a product of its time. The story is simple enough. Alfie, a suave womanizer surrounded by beautiful women, finally gets his comeuppance and is forced to take a hard look at his life choices, and ask, “What’s It All About?” But even though Caine was brilliant in the role, the ’60s sexism comes across now as just that – sexist, and the movie doesn’t really age well. Given that backdrop, a remake placing the Alfie character in a modern setting seems like as good an idea as any.
Enter writer-director Charles Shyer. You may not know his name, but I bet you’re familiar with some of his movies. He’s the ex-husband of Nancy Meyers, who has since gone on to create quite a name for herself with movies like Something’s Gotta Give and It’s Complicated. Back in the day, the two collaborated on some of the more successful comedies of the ’80s and ’90s, including Private Benjamin, Baby Boom, and Father of the Bride. Shyer clearly has an affinity for Alfie and gets not only what makes the character tic, but what makes him relatable to today’s audiences. His remake is stylish, sexy, and perfectly cast.
Most of the credit lies with Law himself. Law commands the screen, and is seen in pretty much every frame. He also addresses the camera Ferris Bueller-style throughout the movie. Now, that’s a narrative gimmick that in lesser hands can come off as contrived, phony, and obnoxious. That isn’t the case here. Law sells the audience every step of the way. His performance is free of any artificiality – he taps in to the character’s inherently sexist, misogynistic tendencies and warps them to the point where those traits come off as merely randy and endearing. His Alfie has a legitimate arc, and the character ends up different at the end of the film than when he began. Law is a lovable douchebag here, the kind that Hugh Grant played to perfection in Bridget Jones’ Diary and About a Boy.
Law is aided admirably by a group of some of Hollywood’s finest working actresses, from all ages and backgrounds: Marisa Tomei, Susan Sarandon, Nia Long, Jane Krakowski, and, most (in)famously, Sienna Miller. All are beautiful, talented ladies and each is given their own moment or two to shine alongside Law. The female characters are relatively complicated and mostly well-written, which is a smart play for an Alfie remake.
Apart from the performances, there is plenty to love about the movie in the margins. The production design and costumes practically scream slim-fitting urban chic. You can tell a lot about a person walking on the street by how they tie a scarf, and if you see me with my scarf, you’ll know that I’ve seen Alfie. I’m not sure if Law was the first to tie his scarf in this manner, but, thanks to this movie, I’m pretty sure he’s not the last. I would love to have Law’s entire wardrobe in this movie. Not sure how Alfie affords it though – he is just a limo driver after all.
The musical soundtrack is also top notch. Shyer recruited Mick Jagger and Dave Stewart to craft a series of songs written specifically for the movie. They also did the instrumental score. Both are fantastic, but the song, “Old Habits Die Hard” which plays over the end credits (and in bits and pieces throughout the movie) is easily one of the best songs written specifically for a movie in the last few decades. Why that one didn’t win the Oscar I’ll never know.
Don’t get me wrong – Alfie isn’t going to set the world on fire. The ending may leave a good number of you unsatisfied because it doesn’t offer the typical Hollywood tidy resolution, but I like that about it. The ending is very bittersweet. On paper, Alfie looks like just another lame romantic comedy, but it never plays that way. It’s smart. it zigs instead of zags. And it features Jude Law at his most magnetic and charismatic. If you’ve avoided the movie up till now, give it a shot.