Alfie

Also: Bright Leaves, Proteus, and Remember Me, My Love.

Alfie

Opens Fri., Nov. 5, at Metro and others

Charles Shyer was the wrong man to remake Alfie, the 1966 cad-lad classic that made Michael Caine a star. Not that there isn't something appealing about the shiny vinyl extrusions of the Shyer factory, like Baby Boom and even, in a ham-fisted sort of way, the Steve Martin remake of Father of the Bride. He may sail a sea of middlebrow cheese, but his comedies of muddle-crass manners have heart.

And that's why he's the wrong mad scientist for the job of reincarnating Alfie. The original character and film scored because they had no heart. It was a high-stakes world in 1966: Girls had no power, except to say no; and the consequences of unwed pregnancy involved a nightmarish visit to abortionist Denholm Elliott. So to succeed as a London lothario, a guy had to have Roman-candle charisma and the morals of a goat. Caine's Alfie boasted both.

Jude Law is at least as skilled an actor as Caine, but Shyer makes his character infinitely nicer. Instead of swinging his dick through Swinging London, Shyer has Law's Alfie putt through Manhattan on a cute little low-testosterone retro-'60s scooter. His day job is driving a limo, wherein he cheats on his "quasi-sort-of-girlfriend," plucky single mom Marisa Tomei. All Alfie's women have more power than Jane Asher, a victim in the 1966 flick (and in life—Alfie-like Paul McCartney was about to dump and diss her by writing "I'm Looking Through You"). The actresses do all they can to animate characters that are just lengths of plastic tubing: Jane Krakowski as a rich limo client; Susan Sarandon's richer Park Avenue sybarite type; and newcomer Sienna Miller as a party girl controlled by no one, including herself. Even the poor girl (Nia Long) who drunkenly gets herself pregnant by Alfie to get back at her faithless ex, Alfie's best friend, is self-determined. Her mere modern discomfiture is unlike the horror of a girl facing abortion in 1966.

Shyer is the last guy on earth who could reimagine the scary thrill of 1966 sex in 2004. Despite all Law's charm and skill, his Alfie is a lightweight lady-killer. He's like a phony, gelded, Nutrasweetened imitation—not of Caine, but of Hugh Grant in About a Boy. Law is 20 times the actor Grant is, but Shyer has no idea how to use that talent. Nor can he craft an emotional arc to his story; it's just a static sequence of good-looking but disconnected and lifeless scenes. Alfie's soliloquies to the camera (a startling device in 1966) now pack less punch than Dobie Gillis'.

Speaking of TV, there are a few traces of a better movie not made, courtesy of Shyer's junior co-writer, Elaine Pope. She's a former Seinfeld scribe who's probably responsible for Alfie's Superman doll and his Superman pajamas and sheets. The conniving but not quite caddish Seinfeld bachelor character represents a plausible midpoint between the cold 1966 Alfie and Shyer's warm, mushy Alfie. That single guy I might buy. But we always have reruns for that. (PG-13) TIM APPELO

Bright Leaves

Opens Fri., Nov. 5, at Varsity

You can be forgiven if you've never heard of the 1950 melodrama Bright Leaf, which starred Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal, but maybe you'll be moved to rent it at Scarecrow after seeing Ross McElwee's typically ruminative, personal documentary about his family's link to that movie and North Carolina's tobacco culture. McElwee (Sherman's March) hears from a cousin that Cooper's brash character was based on their great-grandfather, who apparently had the Bull Durham tobacco formula stolen from him by the rival (and later fabulously wealthy) Duke family. A compulsive filmer, as he admits during his regular wry voice-overs, McElwee naturally thinks there's a movie to be made about how the family legacy was, in a sense, twice appropriated by others.

Yet Bright Leaf, which we see in occasional dull clips, is mainly a MacGuffin for the director. He's more concerned with the ambivalent complicity of those who've traditionally made their living from a farm product that happens to kill its users. Not that McElwee is pointing fingers—he's the most genial of narrators and interviewers as he trains his camera on farmers, friends, and cancer patients. The growers aren't evil; and even those in denial about their crop's health consequences have all suffered tobacco-related deaths in their own families. A Southerner who now resides in Boston and teaches at Harvard, McElwee clearly loves Southerners too much to shame them directly. Even if his own family didn't end up as rich (or as guilty) as the Dukes, he notes, successive generations of McElwee doctors have benefited from "a sort of agricultural-pathological trust fund" by treating so many patients with tobacco-caused diseases.

McElwee's best quality as a filmmaker may be his sympathy, and his worst aimlessness. There's no argument or thesis to Bright Leaves, just observations that spill out like fragments from a loosely rolled cigarette. It's a diary, true in formless form to his other work, which seems awfully anachronistic compared to current documentary art. There's no pointed humor or outrage à la Michael Moore, none of the intellectual rigor of Errol Morris, nothing revelatory like Tarnation or Capturing the Friedmans. However amiable, the movie just winds and meanders and disappears into the air, like a trailing stream of smoke. (PG) BRIAN MILLER

Proteus

Opens Fri., Nov. 5, at Varsity

Co-directors John Greyson and Jack Lewis have jokingly referred to their drama as a "super low-budget, botanical, historical sodomy epic," which gives you a hint of what you're in for here—yet no sense of how surprisingly well it works. Transcripts of an actual 18th-century South African sodomy trial inspired the film, but unlike self-important movies somberly wearing the "based on a true story" badge, Proteus goes beyond just the facts to earn an emotional truth of its own.

There are certainly a lot of particulars, though, and putting up with the film's stubborn density initially feels like doing hard time. It's 1725, and Blank (Rouxnet Brow), a crafty young Khoi herder, is sentenced to an island penal colony off Cape Town, where he insinuates himself into the services of a visiting closeted English botanist, Niven (Shaun Smith). Blank flirtatiously distracts Niven in hopes of gaining his freedom; then, for sexual release, he carelessly takes up with Jacobsz (Neil Sandilands), a compassionate Dutch sailor who wants more than impersonal rutting. A decade passes, during which the prisoners' interracial affair grows as an open secret—until a witch-hunt leads to disaster.

The filmmakers have been scrupulous to historical detail that'll prove foreign to most viewers. But anything you miss will not be explained later. And the film could use either more of its offhand quirks—purposefully anachronistic use of cars, radios, etc.—or none at all. But it isn't stuffy, and it's never boring. Quite the opposite—once you settle into its, forgive me, take-no-prisoners rhythm, Proteus builds with a confident intensity until you find yourself genuinely stirred by its courtroom climax. Canadian Greyson previously made the rapturous gay-love-under-duress fantasia Lilies; here he offers another quietly emotional catharsis that packs a political wallop without stooping to obvious sloganeering.

The acting is first-rate, especially by Sandilands, whose brow-beaten sailor seems on the verge of cracking wide open with unfulfilled longing. When he and Brow face each other in the movie's final frames, his sad, fatalistic look speaks volumes to the enduring importance of putting a true name to what society would so often rather leave undefined. (NR) STEVE WIECKING

Remember Me, My Love

Opens Fri., Nov. 5, at Harvard Exit

Only minutes after I scribbled in my notes that this mediocre Italian family drama could use a real incident, like a car crash, to shake the four principals from their self-imposed funk, a white Fiat mowed someone down. I won't say who, but I also won't say that the movie wouldn't have been better served if all four members of the Ristuccia clan had been splattered on the sidewalk. Remember Me is the kind of predictably multiplotted affair where each character veers off to pursue a different dream—until the Fiat knocks them back together again. It's a fender blender.

Middle-aged patriarch Carlo (Fabrizio Bentivoglio) has an office job he hates and an old manuscript tucked away in his desk drawer. To break out of his marital torpor, naturally he begins an affair with a former love (The Passion of the Christ's Monica Belluci), now also married with children. His schoolteacher wife, Giulia (Laura Morante), returns to her old career as an actress; naturally she falls for her director. Where has the passion gone for Carlo and Giulia? "It's beneath the ashes of marriage," she laments. Not to be outdone, Carlo grouses, "We've buried ourselves under tons of crap." Ashes, crap—which is it? Get your stories straight, already.

Meanwhile, teen son Paulo pines for the pretty girl he can't have, and teen daughter Valentina has her heart set on showbiz. (Her audition for the scantily clad chorus line of a horrid TV game show is presented like a triumph, while any right-thinking parent would rather see their daughter work as a crack whore—at least there's no public shame in that.) Even before the Fiat arrives, it's hard to care much about the divergent yearnings of the comfortably bourgeois Ristuccia family when every party they attend features frantic dancing, scads of beautiful Roman revelers, and cell phones constantly ringing with new temptation. Unfulfilled lives never looked so good. And apart from Paulo's crush, everyone's goals—from Carlo's ponderous unfinished novel to Giulia's laughable play—are more deserving of ridicule than the respect that writer-director Gabriele Muccino (The Last Kiss) ladles over everything. All his dolorous discontent only arouses the same feeling in the audience: We, too, find ourselves buried under ashes and crap. (NR) BRIAN MILLER

 
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