What's it all about, this parade of remakes from Paramount Pictures?
First, there was the dreary "The Stepford Wives," then the ho-hum "The Manchurian Candidate." Now there's "Alfie," and while it's the best of the studio's remake lot so far, the movie still feels like an anachronism.
Despite Jude Law's excellent title performance, "Alfie" is a featherweight update of the biting 1966 original that starred Michael Caine as a callous womanizer who begins to question his lifestyle.
The new version is playfully entertaining, mainly because Law is so charming and has good chemistry with co-stars Susan Sarandon, Marisa Tomei, Nia Long, Jane Krakowski and Sienna Miller, who makes an impressive big-screen debut.
Yet Alfie's growing awareness that maybe he'd be happier if he treated women less like conquests and more like companions seems so outmoded, it's tough to care whether or not he ever sorts out his little dilemmas of love.
Caine's Alfie was more coolly aloof and heartless than Law's Alfie, but he evoked greater empathy with his baby steps toward respect for women as people and not just playthings. For a pretty boy in chauvinistic Britain four decades ago, Alfie's transition from wolf in swinger's clothing practically made him a revolutionary.
As a Brit transplanted to today's Manhattan, home of such strong-willed romantic heroines as the "Sex and the City" gang, Alfie just looks like a jerk getting what he had coming when he wonders if he's somehow missed the boat.
"Alfie" is crisply directed by Charles Shyer ("Father of the Bride") - who co-wrote the screenplay with Elaine Pope, based on Bill Naughton's play and script for the original movie.
A well-dressed, well-groomed chauffeur, Alfie is constantly on the prowl, ready to bed a beautiful passenger or sweet-talk an elderly neighbor into cleaning his apartment.
Alfie has a weekly dalliance with a rich client (Krakowski) who's bored with her husband. For safe harbor, he maintains a "semi-permanent-quasi-sort-of girlfriend" (Tomei), a single mom who provides his family fix and the occasional home-cooked meal.
He stumbles into a one-nighter with the ex-girlfriend (Long) of his best buddy (Omar Epps). A fling with an older, iron-willed career woman (Sarandon) gives Alfie a taste of his own objectification of the other sex.
Miller almost runs away with the movie in a fleeting role as Alfie's "Christmas miracle," a life-of-the-party angel who enchants and later repulses Alfie as he realizes she's "damaged in a way you can't see till you get too close."
Newcomer Miller, whose credits include the short-lived TV series "Keen Eddie," balances ferocity and fragility to create a forlorn lost soul overflowing with broken-doll pathos. Her departure from Alfie's life is heartbreaking, and her shabby treatment makes it all the harder to maintain compassion for the leading man.
Mick Jagger and Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics combine on the movie's score and several unremarkable original songs. Joss Stone sings the Burt Bacharach-Hal David title track, sung by Cher in the 1966 film.
The movie retains the conceit of the 1966 version, with Alfie delivering much of his dialogue as asides directly into the camera.
The device allows Alfie to toss off some choice nuggets of insensitive wit ("I give her my highest grade: A-minus," or "Julie hasn't got enough of the superficial things that really matter.").
Law's mugging monologues eventually grow tiresome, the affectation used so often it undermines the self-searching intent of Alfie's final "what's it all about" soliloquy.
Still, Law's charisma and depth lift the movie above the mediocrity of other recent remakes. With a lesser actor, "Alfie" could have been another superficial mess like "The Stepford Wives."
Stay tuned to the Paramount remake channel. Next year brings Adam Sandler in "The Longest Yard" and Tom Cruise in Steven Spielberg's "War of the Worlds," and the studio has an update of "The Bad News Bears" in the works.
"Alfie," a Paramount release, is rated R for sexual content, some language and drug use. Running time: 105 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
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