Admit it. You’ve allowed yourself a damned good scoff over this. Retro remakes rarely work well. Look at how Sly double-dipped Get Carter in LA-bland or how Gus Van Sant bored us all blind with his nerdy, shot-for-shot Psycho chop-up.
But revisit the original Alfie now and, apart from Michael Caine’s iconic bravado, you could argue it’s a bit on the flabby side: cowed, mousey women, rickety stage-play structure stretched over two hours of dated dates... Gritty-witted and groundbreaking Alfie may have been, but in remaking it, new director/co-writer Charles Shyer has lashed on layers of a much-needed missing ingredient: glamour.
First up, he’s yanked the action from the grimy old Smoke to twinkly New York in the run-up to Christmas. All rosy cheeks and skyline sweeps, it’s a shameless Big Apple Movie, where everyone has a plush pad with a nice view and keeps bumping into each other in photogenic spots. But, as a restless urban backdrop to Alfie’s predatory wanderings, it works.
Beneath the smarm, Law’s Alfie is a bastard (a post-coital “obligatory cuddling” countdown scene will set woman-fists shaking). But, compared to Caine’s trollish chauvinist, he’s a more yielding, vulnerable, fluffy beast: a 21st-century bastard, complete with Gucci-stuffed walk-in wardrobe and Prada loafers. Patrick Bateman without the axe. And whatever you call it – reimagining, remake, relocation... Now is the time. The language may have been freshened up from Caine’s wide-boy blab, but the cynicism remains. It’s even more relevant with Alfie now talking to a generation of men at the fag-end of lad-mag culture. “Whenever you meet a beautiful woman,” he winks, “somewhere, there’s someone who’s sick of shagging her.” After a health scare and a brush with domestication, he vows to get back to “the simple life – women who mean nothing to me”. This is not a first-date movie...
Which is not to say women won’t be watching. Not least because it allows Law to take centre stage after months of tabloid tittle-tattle, giving him an above-the-title shot at real stardom. He takes the shot, proving fresh, funny, intimate and, most importantly, juuust the right side of smug. A relief really, given that, as a plotless character study of a serial bedpost-notcher, Alfie soars or sags on how likeable the lead is. Taking his predecessor’s advice of “treating the camera as a friend”, Law only really echoes Caine in his use of twitchy double-takes for comic emphasis. He’s warmer; more caddish and contemporary.
The New Model Alfie is matched by production design that expertly straddles the five-decade gap. It’s careful to respect the ’60s origins while retaining a crisp, modernist vibe, from Alfie’s Vespa and slimline zoot-suit look to the women: all restyled to move to a ’60s groove while playing up the ironic-retro timelessness of kinky boots, mini-skirts and unusual hair.
There’s the homely glam of Julie (Marisa Tomei) AKA The One That Got Away, or rather the one Alfie didn’t realise was The One until it was too late. Lonette (Nia Long) is all barely obtainable Beyoncé bounce, while angular bombshell Dorie (Jane Krakowski), with her fashion-victim strut and “legs like a racehorse”, feels directly beamed in from the King’s Road circa 1966.
But it’s Sienna Miller’s vivacious, high-maintenance Nikki who really shakes up the celluloid, sending Alfie into a spiral of crisis and regret – and the arms of Liz (Susan Sarandon), The Older Woman. A classy fashionista, Sarandon’s Liz is more than a match for our boy and will please the Y-chromosome crowd when she ruthlessly rebounds his “Women have a shorter shelf-life than men” line back into his sinking face.
Alfie is filmed with a male audience in mind, flashing up all the right cues: subliminal thigh-shots, cleavage leers, freeze-framed flirts and dirty smoulders. But it’s still a strangely chaste film. Shyer smears plenty of Vaseline over the lens and, when it does happen, the sex is either implied, bloodless or off-screen. Even Alfie’s language (“FBB – face, boobs, bum”) seems sculpted to bag a safe certificate and pack in the teens.
There’s a daft older-man mentor character, some over-literal music and around 15 minutes of paunch towards the end. But these are bearable niggles rather than relationship wreckers. Shyer has stirred a modern tang and a sense of playfulness into a revered old recipe. And that’s what it’s all about.