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Alfie *** 1/2 (Out of four)

Jude Law, Marisa Tomei and Susan Sarandon in Charles Shyer's remake of the Michael Caine classic about a vulnerable cad. Rated R, opening Friday in area theaters.

"Alfie" is bulletproof. It almost doesn't matter what you do to it, people will love it and be moved by it anyway.

You can soften it, romanticize it, make the aging cockney Don Juan of the '60s a modern metrosexual pretty boy in Manhattan and, as long as you pay attention to Bill Naughton's original, he will charm and move audiences and tell them things about the human heart and the male ego that they usually pretend aren't true.

But then you have to understand this: By the time we'd first seen "Alfie," starring Michael Caine, it had already been a radio play, a stage play and a novel. Stories just don't get more road-tested than that in our time.

Writer/director Charles Shyer's new version of "Alfie," starring Jude Law, is wonderful -- more than a surprise but only if you forget to take into account how many times it has already proved itself in the world.

It isn't as if there aren't changes. Today's Alfie -- who confides to us "I'm a bit of a fashion whore" -- is played by the almost comically handsome Jude Law, not Michael Caine, the epitome of lucky and happy blokes everywhere. And when he has a turning point encounter with a sophisticated and wealthy older woman, she isn't played by Shelley Winters but by Susan Sarandon.

The difference between a Caine/Winters encounter and a Law/Sarandon encounter is, in one way, all the difference in the world -- a shift from acid realism about an ambitious, heartless gigolo to the eternal movie romance of glossy beautiful people doing what we'd all like to believe always comes naturally.

But make no mistake: Alfie is still Alfie. He's a cad, a bounder, a self-congratulatory womanizer who has figured out that one way past the clasp and the zipper is through the ego. Listen to one's female prey intently enough, flatter them skillfully enough, anticipate their needs cleverly enough and the night is yours. Or, if you like, just a small part of the afternoon in the back seat of the limo Alfie drives.

Alfie's trouble, of course, is that that's as much of the whole man/woman thing as he's figured out. He doesn't begin to understand how much of his own pathos is involved.

That's true to Naughton's original and, as I say, it makes the movie utterly foolproof.

Even more so is the marvelous basic device of "Alfie": He talks directly to the audience all through the movie. He constantly explains and praises himself: "if you ooze masculinity the way some of us do, you don't have to fear pink." But then that seldom explains as much as what we see -- that, for instance, he's a limo driver who, in order to broaden his vocabulary and better himself by learning a new word a day.

The new word on the first day we meet him is "ostentatious." That's the key to the charm of "Alfie" -- still. We the audience are really Alfie's true co-stars. We are, after all, those he's talking to through the whole movie, far more than any character (remember, it was first a radio play.) And it's our decision that counts -- is he just a reckless, feckless yutz or a sadly self-deluded little man with an amatory gift that time will soon steal?

Who is Alfie in his eyes? A man who's never made his own bed but then, as he confides, "I rarely spend a night in my own bed anyway."

Jane Krakowski is the first of what the original Alfie called "birds," the one in his limo back seat. Then there's Marisa Tomei, his off and on any-port-in-a-storm girl or, as he puts it "semi-regular quasi-sort-of-girlfriend," who is becoming increasingly discontent.

Then there's Sarandon, who shows up in his back seat one day (next to Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter in a cameo part.) And Sienna Miller, another back-seat offering who becomes the limo driver's girlfriend until her drug consumption and bi-polarity make her more than a little inconvenient (the real Ms. Miller and Mr. Law are now said to be a couple.)

And in between and worst of all is a sudden consequential tussle with Nia Long (of TV's "Third Watch") who just happens to be his best friend's girlfriend.

All of this Cad's Progress would be monumentally off-putting if we in the audience weren't constantly glimpsing beneath the ceaseless boudoir bravado a decent bloke who knows all about zippers but tragically little about hearts, least of all his own.

And that self-ignorance - movingly - gets him every time.

The secret life of the Casanova isn't seductive success. That's what the world thinks. His secret life, as "Alfie" has it, is ultimate crushing rejection, guilt and loneliness. That's the part unseen.

Except, of course, for us in the audience, the co-stars to whom he's confided all of the beautifully crafted and road-tested ironies.

One final thing: Up to now, Law, in small parts ("A.I.," "Road to Perdition") has given evidence of actor's gifts largely missing from his big starring roles.

No more. "Alfie" was the true star-making role for Caine. And, in a different way, it will be for Jude Law, too.

If you think, then, that Law is a known quantity, you just haven't seen "Alfie" - yet.


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