Alfie plays out like a warning for perpetually single, womanizing men. Don’t do it. While the lead character takes a long time to realize it — and that is, indeed, the only character growth that occurs — that is what the film wants us to learn. It can lead to a lonely life, one in which other people get hurt by your actions … not to mention you get hurt, too. It has its pleasures, but for the most part, it’s not worth it. Sorry for ruining the suspense.
Jude Law takes the lead as Alfie, playing the same role Michael Caine played in the original film, made in the 1960s. That movie was set in Britain, while this one is in America, although Law’s Alfie is also English. He has come to America because New York has the most beautiful women, he tells us near the beginning. He tells us a lot of things, breaking the fourth wall more frequently than is probably necessary. We learn all about his life, his suave nature, and how he does everything possible to make sure that it’s not his apartment that he’s coming back to late at night.
He has an on-and-off-again girlfriend, Julie (Marisa Tomei), although the “off” part plays in more prominently. He doesn’t want committal — ever — while she’s hoping for a ring. So that relationship has to end. Alfie then spends the rest of the film looking for someone to fill that void in his life, going through a myriad of women before the film’s conclusion. This, thankfully, doesn’t happen in a montage; these women are all given personalities, meaning it matters when they get hurt, which they do.
What doesn’t matter a whole lot is Alfie himself. He’s a cocksure man, unaware of the effect he has on others. This is his flaw. He’s got it all figured out, except how to deal with another person’s pain — or his own, which he smiles through. We’re supposed to care for him by the end, but I didn’t notice a large change. The growth, the redemption, it’s missing. He’s figured some things out, but he seemed to have figured it out a lot earlier, too, and didn’t act on it.
There’s a lot of indecision in Alfie, which seemed weird considering all of its moralizing. While he tells us this early on, the lead character has an inability to commit. It turns out that this doesn’t just apply to relationships; it also means that he won’t make a decision in life that cannot be undone easily. He learns that his lifestyle isn’t all that good for him or anyone else fairly early on, but he doesn’t change for whatever reason. The film continues on showing us how it doesn’t work, perhaps to hammer the point on, despite all logic telling us how easy it would be to fix.
This makes it a bit difficult to take Alfie seriously. When the lead character simply isn’t smart enough — despite one character harping about how smart he is underneath his ego — to recognize a mistake, especially after seemingly understanding his problem, you just have to lose faith in him. The moral of the story is there, and it’s effective in preaching what it wants to us, but on a narrative standpoint, Alfie lost me by the end.
There are certainly moments that are effective, but they involve the secondary, underdeveloped characters. One such scene is when Alfie is at a loss for words to use in a breakup with a model, Nikki (Sienna Miller), right after she finished cleaning up the apartment, making dinner, and promising that, while there had been some issues, she’ll try really hard. Another involves Omar Epps’ character giving a stern look, which the camera focuses on for what feels like forever. You can see the pain and anger in Epps’ face at that scene, which is powerful.
It all works because you dislike this character. You don’t like Alfie, and you don’t like what he’s done to everyone else. The film tries to sell him as sympathetic, especially as we close toward the end, but it doesn’t work. Jude Law is too good at being cocky egotist. He sells us so hard on that at the beginning — and the fourth wall breaking scenes help with that — that when he’s in the redemption phase of the film, we can’t get over what he’s already done.
Like I said, Jude Law is effective, but not quite strong enough to endear himself to us once his character has been a slimeball for the majority of the film. The women in the film all get some screen time, but not enough to become anything more than archetypes. There’s the model (Miller), the older, yet attractive woman (Susan Sarandon), the best friend’s girl (Nia Long), and the married one (Jane Karakowski). All of the women are fine, but can’t elevate their characters beyond formula.
Alfie is an occasionally funny, sometimes effective movie that’s too focused on its main idea and message that it ruins any chance it has to make the main character work out in the eyes of the audience. We need to be able to care about him by the end of the film, and that just doesn’t happen — either through his incompetence or because Law can’t convince us that he’s made a change in his life. It has its moments, and it’s rarely dull, but Alfie is only intermittently worth your time.