October 27, 2004

Playboy receives comeuppance in tepid remake

When an actor speaks directly to the camera, it's known as "breaking the fourth wall." Breaking the fourth wall can be an engaging, albeit unconventional, way to interact with the audience. The problem is that very few actors manage to do it well. The only two I can think of off the top of my head are the vastly disparate Ian McKellen in Richard III and Matthew Broderick in Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

Now add to that short list Jude Law, whose turn as the title character in Alfie is alternately charming, unsettling, and infuriating (as called for by the script). Too bad his performance is just about the only good thing in Alfie, an inept remake of the well-regarded 1966 Michael Caine vehicle. I haven't seen the original, but one need not be familiar with it to realize that the remake is a squandered opportunity. The 2004 Alfie, directed by Charles Shyer, is so bad it just may make Tim Burton's dreary "re-imagining" of Planet of the Apes look good.

Law stars as Alfie (no last name given or needed), a rakish womanizer who receives his comeuppance through a series of unfortunate events, including impregnating his best friend's fiancée, receiving a health scare, and being passed over in bed for a younger man. Any of these situations could provide the plot for an entire film if handled effectively. In Alfie, no crisis is given the dramatic weight it deserves—not that the characters are sympathetic enough to earn our concern anyhow.

There are a few bright spots in this botched mess. Susan Sarandon is fun as Liz, a promiscuous older woman who shows Alfie how it feels to be discarded. Jane Krakowski is quite effective as Dorie, partially because her unconventional beauty adds a dimension to Alfie that may have otherwise been missing. (If all the women he slept with looked like supermodels, we might have hoped that his erectile dysfunction would last.) Sienna Miller's Nikki, though, never develops fully as a character. There is a flicker of tragedy in her, but it's either trivialized or played for cruel laughs. "Honey, I swear I'll be better. I'll take my medication," she assures a frustrated Alfie.

The real standout here (other than Law, who has now officially proven that he can be good in anything) is Marisa Tomei. As Julie, the woman who finally wins Alfie's heart—but rejects it for a boyfriend more considerate of her emotions—she exudes a grace, serenity, and strength missing from many of today's flashy, trashy actresses. One suspects Charles Shyer wanted a leading lady reminiscent of "Old Hollywood" (perhaps as an homage to the original Alfie?) and he certainly made the right choice. It's time to rescue Tomei from Hollywood purgatory. She should get the roles being offered to A-list actresses like Renée Zellweger and Angelina Jolie.

Throughout the film, director Charles Shyer places words like "desire" and "search" on flat surfaces such as walls and billboards. These aren't supposed to be some kind of minimalist advertisements; instead, the words are a whimsical, surrealistic nod to key themes in the story. Call me old-fashioned, but I feel the same way about such additions as I do about "breaking the fourth wall." Unless there's a solid reason to go outside the story, it's usually not necessary. Visually, Alfie can be very inventive—using split screens, intense color saturation and the like—but eventually these frills come across as desperate attempts to divert our attention from the weak story.

The film tries to interject some heart through Alfie's interactions with a young boy and an old man, but it's a case of too little, too late. Both serve as almost embarrassingly obvious reminders of Alfie's mortality. A walk along the beach with the old man is particularly painful; you might call it Tuesdays with Alfie. And no, despite what the writers might think-—that's not a good thing.

The end of the film is so clumsy, so awkwardly scripted, that one can feel the collective wince of the audience as Jude Law delivers his final soliliquoy. A friend of mine, furious about this wasted 90 minutes of her life, stole an entire box of stick deodorant from the screening sponsor—Dove—as retribution. If you choose to pay to see this in the theater, be aware that a comparable vengeance may not be immediately recognizable.

Alfie staggers uncertainly between lame plot contrivances and tepid melodrama. It wants to say something about thirty-something bachelorhood today, about the new Maxim subculture, and about the age-old dilemma of men not wanting to commit. But in the end, Alfie has pathetically little to say. Alfie the character may be a cad, but Alfie the film is even worse. And I didn't need someone to speak directly into the camera to tell me that.