"Alfie": Sex, Lies and Limousines
Alfie Elkins is an incredible lout. A 30-something Englishman transplanted to New York, he works as a limo-driver mainly to finance his real vocation, which is to bed, or at least to backseat, as many women as he can — and to move on as quickly as possible. "We all have an expiration date," he says, "and women have a shorter shelf life than men, don't they?" Alfie has no real interest in women; they're scenery. He plucks them like flowers and then drops them the moment they begin to wilt — or, as he says, to "want more than I can give." Lying in a reluctant post-coital embrace in the back of his limo, he looks out at us and says, with a weary sigh, "Obligatory cuddling — thousand-one, thousand-two ..." He has no morals, only standards: "I'll give her my highest grade," he says, surveying one particularly hot number. "A-minus."
As Alfie, in this re-tooling of the 1966 movie that made Michael Caine an overnight star, Jude Law gives a virtuoso performance — not his first, but possibly his most captivating. He's in every scene, and he narrates the action with a stream of tart aphorisms delivered directly to the camera (a tricky thing to pull off without breaking the story's spell). His buoyant charm is dazzling. Alfie is jiving all the women he comes on to, but to us he talks straight. "My priorities," he confides, "lean toward wine, women ... well, that's about it for me." He's an innocent, in a way: It would never occur to him to think that he might be behaving badly, because it would never occur to him to think about such things at all. He's not a predator, exactly, just a heedless seducer — and we can't help it: We're seduced.
Alfie wants sex without complications — which is to say, without connection. When sweet-natured Julie (Marisa Tomei), the young single mom he's been semi-shacking up with, starts making relationship noises, he instantly recoils. ("Julie," he turns to tell us, "hasn't got enough of the superficial things that really matter.") Tall, blond, modelesque Nikki (Sienna Miller) seems an altogether snazzier prospect. But after installing her in his apartment, he begins to notice lamentable imperfections. (She's something of a pothead, and she gets a little sloppy when she drinks.) It reminds him of the time, when he was a boy, that he saw a statue of Aphrodite in a museum, and was transfixed by its exquisite female form — until he noticed small cracks in the stone. "Ruined it for me," he says. "Beautiful, but damaged."
It's tempting to keep quoting lines and noting witty incidents from this sleekly crafted film. Although the story takes its structure from the same Bill Naughton screenplay that provided the basis for the 1966 "Alfie" (which was nominated for five Academy Awards), director Charles Shyer and his co-writer, Elaine Pope, have created an exuberant update of the original material; and by relocating the action from London to New York, they've opened it up in ravishing ways — dreamscape Manhattan, from its sparkling SoHo cafes to the glittering lights of Central Park in the snow, has not often been more resplendently presented. And the story still ends with symmetrical justice, meted out this time by a wealthy and beautiful older woman named Liz (Susan Sarandon), who's known many an Alfie in her day, and who has this one's number the moment he opens his mouth. Like us, though, she can hardly wait to hear what he has to say anyway.
("Alfie" is a Paramount Pictures release. Paramount and MTV are both subsidiaries of Viacom.)
"Enduring Love": Crazy for You
"Enduring Love" gives you a queasy case of the creeps. It's a stalker movie sprung from a philosophical premise. Its protagonist, a self-involved English university professor, is an intellectual who doesn't believe in much, least of all love; and very least of all, love that endures. Then one day true love comes wheeling his way, all damp and panting and out of control, and he finds that he can't endure it.
Joe Rose (Daniel Craig) is almost a caricature of the modern man of reason. He tells his students that nothing in life has a meaning beyond whatever arbitrary one we may assign to it, and that love, especially, is an illusion — a raw biological imperative obscured by meaningless emotional turmoil. Nevertheless, Joe has strong meaningless feelings for his girlfriend, a successful sculptor named Claire (Samantha Morton), and he has decided, rather arbitrarily, to ask her to marry him. One perfect sunny day, he takes her out into the rolling green countryside around Oxford for a champagne picnic, during the course of which he plans to propose. Before he can do so, though, a big hot-air balloon comes crashing down out of the sky and goes scudding across a field, its bright red silk puffed out by the wind, a frightened boy in its passenger basket. Daniel and a few other bystanders come running to assist, each of them grabbing one of the balloon's mooring ropes and struggling to pull it to a halt. But the wind gusts up again, and the balloon begins to ascend, lifting the four men by the ropes they're grasping. Daniel and two of the other would-be rescuers let go before the balloon rises too far, and they fall a short way back to the ground unharmed. A fourth man, however, holds on as the vessel drifts upward, and he's very high above the field when his hands finally slip from the rope. He goes plummeting to his death.
This startling shot — from an overhead angle that clearly shows the terrified man falling away from us, practically all the way down to the ground — seems so real and unmediated by computers that you may actually wonder how it was done. It's followed by an equally horrific view of the dead man's crumpled body, which has been pounded into the ground, its cracked bones leering out through ripped skin and its glistening viscera plopped out like sausages on the sunny turf. Not too much is made of these shots — the director, Roger Michell ("Notting Hill"), doesn't milk them. But they burrow in your mind as the film's disturbing air of claustrophobic dread begins to build.
Contemplating the torn body on the grass, Daniel is approached by one of his fellow rescuers, a tall, blond, gangly man named Jed Parry (Rhys Ifans). Jed, who looks like a stick figure wrapped in shapeless clothes that might've been plucked out of a Dumpster, is clearly a bit off: He wants Daniel to kneel with him in prayer. ("I find it helps at times like these," he says, with gooey obsequiousness.) Daniel sinks to his knees with an obvious lack of enthusiasm.
In the days that follow, Daniel, a man already inclined to heavy rumination, becomes obsessed with the meaning — might there actually be one? — of the balloon man's death. (Since the boy in the passenger basket ultimately managed to land the vessel a few miles away, the man who fell died entirely in vain.) Then, out of the blue, love comes calling. One night, in the apartment he shares with Claire, he gets a phone call. It's Jed. Daniel can't imagine what he wants or, more important, how he got his number. "Where are you?" he asks suspiciously. "I'm in the park across the street," Jed says in a soft, disquieting purr. And sure enough, there he is. "God's love passed between us," the spindly drifter says of their brief encounter after the accident. And then: "Isn't there something you want to say to me?" Daniel can't imagine what he's talking about. But in the days that follow, Jed keeps pressing for an answer as he insinuates himself into Daniel's daily routines. Daniel goes to a restaurant: Jed is there. He goes to a bookstore: Jed is there among the stacks, grinning and snapping his picture. He seems to know all about Daniel, and, more worryingly, he knows about Claire, too. With his unspecified and increasingly ominous needs, Jed starts to drive Daniel over the edge of his forbearance; and Daniel, consumed by mounting anger, begins to drive away Claire (who has in any case grown weary of her boyfriend's anti-romance rants). Finally, in search of an explanation for all this, Daniel goes to see the widow of the man who fell from the balloon. She tells him she thinks there was someone with her husband when he drove away from the house that morning — someone she couldn't identify.
"Enduring Love"'s symbolism is sometimes a little ostentatious. (The billowing red balloon is echoed by a blood-colored pomegranate in a fruit bowl, and later by the sculpted apples in a museum exhibition.) And the sterile cityscape in which the story is set becomes visually oppressive after a while. (The movie was presumably filmed in London, but famous landmarks have been avoided, so it could be any old nowhere in the world.) But Daniel Craig (he played gang boss Paul Newman's crazy son in the 2002 "Road to Perdition") is tautly convincing as a smug, upscale academic whose encounter with the irrational nearly drives him mad. Samantha Morton, intriguingly placid as always, conveys a thoughtful ambivalence here. And as Jed, the Welsh actor Rhys Ifans (in his second balloon-related role — he also starred in the airborne Australian comedy "Danny Deckchair") brings an odd, shlumpy malevolence to the picture. You feel an uneasy twinge whenever he sidles into a scene.
The movie is so tamped-down and ambiguous that certain viewers may experience it as something not unlike a low-grade headache. But with its pervasive sense of unease and senseless threat, it does lodge in your head. Which probably can't be said of whatever more standard piece of cinematic product you may have endured lately.