Alfie

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The title character in “Alfie,” played with rakish charm by Jude Law, brags about his sex life so constantly and so single-mindedly that you begin to suspect he has never actually had sex. He’s an improbably shallow and arrogant creature, made all the more slap-worthy by how lovable he is.

Alfie, an Englishman in New York in the latest version of Bill Naughton’s play (famously made into a 1966 Michael Caine film), takes pride in his sexual conquests, and even more in his ability to remain uncommitted to any of the women involved. He flees emotional involvement, his occupation as a limo driver nicely symbolizing his transient, carefree lifestyle.

I find him loathsome. This is not particularly because of his wantonness, but because of his smarmy attitude about it, which warrants all the misfortune the screenplay can concoct for him. Happily, I can report that Alfie does indeed suffer misfortunes and that these make him re-examine his life. But I don’t feel sorry for him, and I think I’m supposed to. Oh well.

Things begin their descent for Alfie when he sleeps with the girlfriend (Nia Long) of his best friend (Omar Epps), which has the expected consequences, including pregnancy. (The girlfriend’s, not Alfie’s.) Then there is a mild health scare for Alfie that seems to be important but which only lasts for about five movie minutes, a thematic red herring that kills some time before Alfie’s REAL introspection begins.

Director Charles Shyer (who adapted the play with sitcom veteran Elaine Pope) couldn’t have wished for a better lead than Law. The man can act, first and foremost, a fact that redeems the film in its final 20 minutes and ultimately makes it worth recommending. It’s ultimately a serious-minded character drama, topped with a little comedy and randiness.

In addition, though Law will have appeared in six 2004 releases by year’s end, he has not yet made the public sick of him. His public persona is that of quiet charm, and so we are more willing to cut him some slack when he plays a character, like Alfie, who is hard to like. He is fast joining the ranks of actors who can do no wrong, actors like Tom Hanks and Steve Martin whose larger-than-life celebrityhood makes them beloved regardless of what they actually do. Law doesn’t “do” anything amazing in “Alfie.” He gives an honest, pitch-perfect performance in a film that is otherwise unremarkable.

B- (1 hr., 43 min.; R, scattered F-words, some fairly strong sexuality, some nudity.)

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