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The Pretty-Boy Syndrome

In the new version of Alfie, the libidinous London cad of the original has been recast as Jude Law and reimagined as a strutting, preening, Prada-shoed Manhattan peacock, a male Carrie Bradshaw.

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A friend of mine has a joke. He raises his eyebrows, shrugs his shoulders, and says, “Jude Law . . . ?” Which means that he is a straight guy, but given the chance? With Jude Law . . .? Because obviously, Jude Law is beautiful in a way that transcends regular handsomeness, even movie-star handsomeness: Jude Law is art, walking. Who could resist?

The puissance of Law’s physical flawlessness—along with his accent and his intensity, and, yes, right, his talent—have made him a compelling choice to play all manner of male Siren: the nubile treat who destroyed Oscar Wilde in 1997’s Wilde, a robot gigolo in leather in Spielberg’s A.I., the imperious Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr. Ripley, and, most recently, the rakish Joe Sullivan in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. But in the soon-to-be-released remake of the British classic Alfie—reset here, in New York City—Law plays the cad to end all cads: His irresistibility is the engine of the film.

“I found Alfie’s opinion, his inner voice, not shocking necessarily, but certainly still selfish, certainly still blind, and there are still Alfies . . . still people living and thinking like that,” says Law, sitting on a green-velvet-upholstered bench in a pub in North London at noon on a Friday. “Whether they’re projecting that outwardly, whether they’re letting the people close to them know that or not is another matter. For a terrain of storytelling, people’s sexual behavior is, and will always be, fascinating.”

Law’s looks notwithstanding, in person it’s actually extremely easy to forget about his sexuality, about sex in general. Where Alfie is all opportunism and desire, Jude Law does not exude appetite of any kind. He is genial and quite polite, but he is understated and entirely self-enclosed. He does not flirt; you cannot catch a contact high off his ego. “I think it has a lot to do with being English,” he says. “I think the English have a nature where they constantly want to be an Everyman. Because it’s ingrained in you to not be above your station. My point of view is very much an English point of view, which is, Look, it’s a fucking job and I’m getting away with it. What’s that?” he says to a bar back with greased black hair and a bow tie who has come up behind him. The man says something in an accent so thick I cannot make out a single word and then thrusts a napkin in front of Law.

This redecorated cad is not a predator but a pretty, well- groomed, well-heeled trap: part lady-killer, part lady. Sex has never been so narcissistic.

“Julie? With a u? There you go, mate.” Law signs the napkin, and the bar back walks away without thanking him. “I don’t want to act in order to be a star or a sex symbol or an icon of any kind,” Law continues. “If you ask anyone that flatly and they recognize their status as an icon, I think there’s something really wrong with them. If it enters my head, I look at it as something to react off of . . . a by-product of the company I work for.” And then, as he often does, Law employs Alfie’s signature line: “Know what I mean?”

There is an Alfie billboard up in the meatpacking district, picturing Law’s perfect face next to the words WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT?, the refrain from Burt Bacharach’s theme song for the original 1966 film. The meatpacking district was, of course, initially a place for meatpacking, and then, briefly, it became something else, something fantastic. For a minute, it was the perfect corner of Manhattan: cobblestone streets from which you could see the Hudson River, tenements and brownstones no more than six or seven stories, tiny cafés in the day, dive bars and transsexuals in the dark. (Come to think of it, it felt a little bit like London.) Now it is a stylish theme park. So, hovering above a neighborhood that is a kind of slick, expensive re-creation of what it once was actually is an advertisement for a film that is a slick re-creation of what it once was actually. The new Alfie is the patron saint of Manhattan metrosexual paradise.

But to say that this Alfie is unrecognizable is not to say that it’s all bad. Like Sex and the City, the movie gets at something that is simultaneously alluring and inane about modern Manhattan. It is a fashion shoot and a rock video, but it is a fantastic-looking fashion shoot. The New York we see in Alfie shines and flashes—the Brooklyn Bridge speeding by, the posh, low-lit interiors of lounges and the high heels that dance on their floors, the white-light-strung trees outside Tavern on the Green gleaming in the night sky. And it is an entertaining rock video, set to a soundtrack mostly written and performed by Mick Jagger. When the original film came out in 1966, Jagger was recording the album Flowers with the Rolling Stones, and singing lyrics like “You take it or leave it,” and “Just you be my backstreet girl,” and, of course, “Let’s spend the night together.” He’s singing a very different tune now—a typical lyric from the new Alfie soundtrack: “Let’s talk it over, let’s make a deal . . . You know how I feel.” Which happens to reflect a lot about the difference between the two Alfies, and the difference between the eras in which they were made.

Michael Caine’s Alfie of the mid-sixties was alluring but frightening in his relentless self-interest. He called women “it” instead of “she,” and threatened to belt them if they asked him too many questions. He was operating in a London that had not quite started to swing, and the women he exploited weren’t miniskirted mods so much as meek, perpetually disappointed masochists. At that time, a protagonist who lived his life purely in service to his desires, unhindered by any sense of obligation or loyalty—and one who unapologetically declared this in a running monologue addressed to the camera—was scandalous. Like the selfish, compelling, masculine lust Jagger sang about on Flowers, Caine’s Alfie was a dark, hedonistic surprise.

People seeking the same cold jolt from this remake will be disappointed by Jude Law and director Charles Shyer’s Alfie. Law’s character has far less in common with Caine’s than he does with Carrie Bradshaw. He is a “fashion whore,” obsessed with his shoe collection, which he keeps meticulously organized in boxes affixed with Polaroids of the Ferragamo cap-toes and Prada lace-ups contained within. He flits about Manhattan, bouncing from affairs in lavish uptown penthouses to drunken trysts at Dumbo dance parties. The script, written by Elaine Pope, a veteran writer and producer on Seinfeld and Murphy Brown who has collaborated frequently with Carrie Fisher, is peppered with Sex and the City–style puns: “Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder.” “When we pitched it,” says Pope, “it was as a male Bridget Jones.” It is hard not to hear echoes of Carrie typing her column on her laptop in Alfie’s monologues to the camera—hard not to think of her “I couldn’t help but wonder” in his “Know what I mean?”


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