The man Alfie Elkins’ constant pursuit of hedonism, even as a caricature and as a plot device, is despicable and watching him prey on women in 1966’s Alfie, made me, as I’m sure it was supposed to, uncomfortable. The barrage of dehumanizing rituals to which Alfie routinely subjects his “things,” even as a parody of machismo and masculinity, if nothing else drives the point home that, even the most hedonistic and emotionless of all men, need some TLC. Sex without love is, as we’ve always seen, and we’ll continue to see, eventually meaningless and mostly depressing.
Hedonism, as a life pursuit, deludes lots of men (and women) into thinking that the sole goal of one’s life should be pleasure, and any work or relationship or activity should totally and finitely support that goal. In reality, as has been proven for thousands of years of text, music, film and fine art, the lifestyle is unsustainable and more often than not ends in defiant crash-and-burn. Refreshingly, though, Alfie’s life affirmation ends with contemplation; not with a bang, but with a whimper.
Alfie attempts to provide insight and hope into the concept of The Modern Man. In the 1966 rendition, Michael Caine, plays Alfie (not Alfred, Batman), a womanizing, friendless, carcass of a man, whose sole purpose seems to be reducing his women to almost inhuman levels of subservience. He treats his women like chattel and his “friends” as tools to the next easy lay. For, you see, women are Alfie’s addiction, but not love and not even lust; flesh is less important to him than the concept of owning a woman. It’s truly despicable: he describes his women using the pronoun “it,” picks up a nubile, naïve girl and almost forces her into involuntary servitude…..for what? What is it about this man that makes him so confident that his attention is even worth its weight in delusion? The answer, as our caricature finds out, is nothing.
As a necessary remake, 2004’s Alfie casts Jude Law in the titular role with some vital modern updates, but still keeps the underbelly of the dick-with-no-brain alive. For instance, Alfie is now a British-American expat, taking advantage of his “accent” to “score women.” The film also puts too much emphasis on his “job,” or how he “pays” for his “dates.” Here Alfie is, reincarnated almost a half-century later and, while his problems – internal at best – remain similar; eventually his misanthropic attention-seeking turns sour and leaves him with nothing. The modernity: the cell phones, the email, the constant access gives 2004’s Alfie a new theme by which the audience might feel saddened, apathetic and hollow. (Are we really supposed to sympathize with Alfie’s “character transformation?”) For all the modernity, though, Alfie‘s theme remain almost head-scratchingly consistent. One would think that if we made an Alfie for 2015, we’d cry/roll our eyes at Alfie’s Facebook profile.
But over 50 years, the idea of a “modern man” has changed. The new man treats his friends with respect and he treats his girlfriends (or boyfriends) with sincerity and equality. The 21st-century gentlemen demands others do the same around him. It’s no longer cool to be apathetic and careless. Dress and achievement will pull no wool over the modern woman’s eyes. The modern man won’t find a clueless teen wandering down from Sheffield or east from Pittsburgh to make her life in the “big city.” This woman is schooled on the ways of things and the modern man cherishes this. The progressive hombre knows that the pool has only grown larger, but he also knows that it’s simpler to drown that way; he loves how he’ll be held up by the woman who’s looking for this man. It’s a concept of symbiosis and transcendence from overt to demure – a combination of confidence and modesty. It’s what makes both versions of the film fit snugly into their epochs, but stand out so conspicuously in each other’s.
As a musing on mens’ relationship with societal pressure and hedonism 1966’s Alfie demanded the attention of its audience and of the Academy, earning several Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture. Right on the cusp of my choice for the 2nd gilded age of filmmaking, Alfie lost to A Man For All Seasons, curiously chosen as a highbrow biopic over several comedies, a war film and Elizabeth Taylor’s best work in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Not so curiously, with the goofiness and almost cringeworthy pacing of 2004’s version, Jude Law’s Alfie earned 0 nominations in an age when it was no longer funny (or sad) to discuss womanizing with any kind of attitude.