Talking to the Audience: ‘Alfie’ (2004) and ‘Hitch’ (2005)

Both Alfie (2004) and Hitch (2005) begin the same way. After a short voice over narration, the titular protagonist breaks the fourth wall by turning to the audience and introducing themselves. By talking to the audience, they introduce themselves as not just a character, but a host. They control this part of the story.

As characters, Hitch and Alfie resemble each other in many ways. Both begin the story as emotionally guarded controlled characters who do not want to commit to anybody. By the end, they will have to admit the errors in their logic and become happier individuals.

Breaking the Fourth Wall

While common in theater, a character turning to camera and breaking the fourth wall in film has a different effect. It breaks the belief that the audience is observing a reality and makes a character into a host of the story rather than a participant. Often filmmakers will use this type of storytelling more for comedic effect, as it makes a point that the character knows that an audience exists outside the story.

While this is an interesting storytelling technique, what truly matters is how the filmmakers choose to use them. The film’s approach depends on who the filmmakers have talking to the audience and whether the filmmaking supports their viewpoint. For example, in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), the camerawork, editing, and storytelling favors the character of Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) and places the audience on his side. Almost every ally of Bueller is sympathetic and lovable, while almost every villain is absurd. In contrast, The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) emphasizes the absurdity of its characters, their indiscretions, and their behavior. When protagonist Jordan Belfort (Leonardo Dicaprio) talks to the audience, he brags and gloats about his wealth.

‘Alfie’

After sleeping with multiple different women, womanizing Limo driver Alfie Elkins’ (Jude Law) promiscuous lifestyle begins to catch up to him.

The Creative Team

Alfie is a reimagining of a British story by Bill Naughton, which he wrote as a novel, play, and screenplay. The remake takes elements of all three. The original 1966 film is probably best remembered today for helping make Michael Caine into a movie star.

Director Charles Shyer is no stranger to remakes. Shyer had helmed Father of the Bride (1991) and Father of the Bride Part II (1995), which were based on earlier films starring Spencer Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor (Father of the Bride (1950), Father’s Little Dividend (1951)). Shyer had co-written all the films he directed with his ex-wife Nancy Meyers (and did the same with her debut The Parent Trap (1998)). Alfie marks the first time Shyer co-wrote one of his films with another writer.

In this case, producer and co-writer Elaine Pope talked Shyer into remaking Alfie. In the DVD extras, Shyer and Pope discuss how they felt they could push the style further and explore areas unexplored in the earlier version (what does Alfie think about during sex). Their approach seems to try to be faithful to the story and style of the original. However, their film’s approach focuses more on a lighter more playful tone.

Tone

This film is the second serious film Shyer made (he had previously made The Affair of the Necklace (2001)). However, Alfie has many jokes that clash with the more serious tone.

A great example of this is a scene that demonstrates that Alfie’s new girlfriend Nikki (Sienna Miller) as a deeply troubled character. Alfie has a monologue where he compares the damaged Nikki to a beautiful statue of Aphrodite, which Alfie noticed was chipped when he walked by it. Meanwhile, across the apartment, a topless Nikki cuts up a very phallic zucchini with a meat cleaver. Alfie does not react to this because he is too busy talking to the audience. Such comedic bits seem at odds with the more serious tone of the film. However, such jokes are not the only aspect that clashes with the movie’s approach.

The Protagonist

The original Alfie took place in a 1960s England and examined that setting’s social problems. Unlike his earlier counterpart, the new Alfie character is much more charming and much less brusque.  For example, the original Alfie calls women “it.” In this version, Alfie rarely refers to women this way. According to Shyer and Elaine Pope, this comes from a change in time period. They did not believe that women would go for the old outright misogynistic version of Alfie.

With this change, the problem of Alfie changes. Instead of being outright misogynistic, this Alfie feels unsatisfied settling down and having to deal with the actual problems of the many women he beds. He seems to seek a perfection he can never have.

To make the character more likable, every plot point becomes much less consequential in this version of the story, especially with any plot about Alfie parenting children. In the original, Alfie fathers and abandons a child. This version has Alfie dating single mother Julie (Marisa Tomei), who has a child that is not his.

Similarly, the original also has Alfie pay for a backdoor abortion when he impregnates another man’s wife. When Alfie sees the aborted fetus, he realizes the consequences of his actions. In this version, the woman Lonette (Nia Long) has the baby. Also, Lonette has just broken up with Lonette’s best friend Marlon (Omar Epps) in this version, so this tryst falls into a hurtful yet more morally grey area. However, when Lonette does marry Alfie’s best friend Marlon, this indiscretion and the subsequent child ends up destroying their friendship. All of these changes make the story of Alfie less consequential in many ways.

Framing of Protagonist

Along with this change, they decided to make Alfie more relatable. This includes Alfie saying and doing things that Shyer and Pope think the audience will relate to, such as Shyer not liking being single at Christmas. Alfie also seems to have some progressive views of women and genuinely like and admire the women in the story. A scene at the beginning of the story has Alfie say he is not ashamed to wear pink.

However, this begs the question of why the audience would want to relate to Alfie. This is a character who cheats on multiple women, fathers an illegitimate child with his best friend’s girlfriend, and barely changes in the end. The original’s characterization made sense because of how the film sees him. Since the film does not endorse this behavior, what is the point of making the audience relate to him?

How He addresses the Audience

Alfie addresses the audience throughout the story, breaking the fourth wall often to give the audience a clever aside or point of view on the relationship he is currently in. Often his internal monologue contradicts the charming act he puts on for the women in front of them. Besides the asides, he also makes quick glances at the camera.

Women in the Story

In all versions, Alfie tells a story about a man who mistreats women.  In the new version, Alfie is more neglectful than outright abusive. He shows up when things suit him and leave when they get horrible. However, when he is with these women, everybody seems to be having a great time. He keeps everything light and easy and rarely acts straight up rude to anybody. This Alfie also justifies every infidelity with a woman by saying he’s doing their partner a favor. To reference, here are the main female characters as they appear in the story:

  1. Dorie (Jane Krakowski) – married woman who Alfie sleeps with.
  2. Julie – the Married mom Alfie starts a relationship with.
  3. Lonette – a bar owner and the girlfriend of his best friend, Marlon.
  4. Liz (Susan Sarandon) – the successful businesswoman who catches his interest. The female equivalent of Alfie.
  5. Nikki – a beautiful yet troubled woman who Alfie has move in with him.

While the original featured on mostly very plain looking women, the remake features many attractive women as its leads (including Maris Tomei and Susan Sarandon). One of the most unattractive woman in the story, Mrs. Schnitsman (Renée Taylor), is somebody Alfie seduces emotionally, but not sexually.

Alfie’s attitudes towards women sometimes also seem a little inconsistent. For example, Alfie seems to pretend to be progressive so he can sleep with two lesbians. However, when Alfie’s crazy crippled Japanese boss Wing (Gedde Watanabe) boss acts horribly towards his wife Blossom, Alfie acts sympathetic towards Blossom’s situation, without any irony. Sometimes the monologue makes it seem like he admires the women of the story. At other times, the internal monologue makes it seem like Alfie only cares about using the women in the story.

Sexuality in the Film

Since this is an American film, Alfie has come to New York to chase the American dream of sleeping with the most beautiful women in the world. The casting, cinematography, and editing seem to favor Alfie’s perspective of women rather than critiquing or questioning it.

For a film about a man sleeping with lots of women, Alfie seems pretty chaste in terms of sexuality. The audience more often sees the result of Alfie’s sex life than the actual sex. When the audience does see sex, the film often portrays it as obscured, out of focus, or in close-up. The only real nudity the audience sees is a scene of Sienna Miller’s breasts. Often the sexuality comes more from suggestion.

Sexuality and gender that falls outside of the norm often appears as a joke. In a minor example, Alfie has a threesome with two women who seem more into each other than him. When he experiences erectile dysfunction, Alfie goes to androgynous German doctor Miranda Kulp (Jefferson Mays), who he says is “a he without a little bit of she thrown in.” According to Shyer and Pope, they chose this character based on asking what the most uncomfortable person in that role would be.

One of the major changes from the original has doctor Kulp finding a lump on Alfie’s penis. In the original, Alfie gets tuberculosis and meets another significant character through this experience. While this new penis subplot affects Alfie, it does not really challenge him. The test comes back negative and Alfie decides to better himself. However, Alfie is always trying to better him, so this subplot does not seem to matter. This sequence does add another joke about a teacher leading school children thinking Alfie is a pedophile because he’s walking home with his hands over his penis, but that is the extent of its significance.

‘Hitch’

Date Doctor Alex ‘Hitch’ Hitchens (Will Smith) has his practice challenged when he meets socially inept accountant Albert Brennaman (Kevin James) and workaholic gossip columnist Sara Melas (Eva Mendes).

The Creative Team

Before Hitch, director Andy Tennant had spent the past decade making comedies and romances. His previous film Sweet Home Alabama (2002) also takes place partially in New York. While Tenant worked as an established director, this is writer Kevin Bisch’s first produced script. To date, this is his only writing credit on a feature.

Casting Hitch’s love interest became a major concern for the studio because Hitch tells the story of an African American lead in a romantic situation. According to Will Smith, the studio did not want to cast a white actress as they worried about how it would play in America. They also worried about casting a black actress, feeling that would also alienate a mainstream audience. So, they settled on making the film with a Hispanic actress in the romantic lead.

Hitch has a very diverse cast, but race is almost never discussed in this movie. The audience also never sees an interracial couple who is African American and Caucasian. They exist in this world as Ben (Michael Rappaport) married Hitch’s sister and is expecting a baby with her. However, his sister never appears in the story.

Tone

A very light brightly colored movie, Hitch aims to please as a light date movie. Nothing very controversial happens in it. Characters almost never change. Every character acts in a more cartoonish and infantile manner. The humor often consists of silly performances, physicality, and slapstick. Like many Romantic comedies, the story could have been solved by the characters actually having a conversation.

Hitch’s world seems to operate primarily on binaries. Women exist either as prizes to be achieved or as neurotic and lovelorn individuals. Straight men tend to be divided into romantic good guys and misogynists who do not listen to women. On one side of the spectrum is all of Hitch’s lovable yet awkward client. At the other end sits the aptly named Vance Munson (Jeffrey Donovan), an aggressive slick businessman trying to deceptively bed women. In Hitch’s world, Vance’s actions constitute the worst thing a man can possibly do to a woman. A character such as Alfie could not exist in this PG-13 version of reality.

The Protagonist

Although purportedly the protagonist of the story, Alex Hitchens seems like a supporting character in his own movie. Throughout most of the story, Hitch is not challenged as a character, but challenges other characters. To Albert, he is a mentor. To Sara, he is an antagonist and the character who ultimately changes her. However, in the latter half of the movie, these characters turn around and challenge Hitch.

Hitch’s Business

Hitch’s practice primarily focuses on nice guys looking to achieve a certain woman. His practice seems to build up to the first kiss and possibly more. He does not do breakups or fix deeper problems in misogynistic men. His business seems to be mainly how to achieve women’s affections. Hitch describes a set of “basic principles.”

According to the opening, Hitch uses a three-date approach to get men to the “high stakes medal round” of dating. With Hitch, there’s only one chance to impress a woman. Otherwise, the man fades into obscurity with all the other nobodies the woman dated.

The B story focuses on accountant Albert Brennaman trying to date his boss, wealthy heiress Allegra Cole (Amber Valletta). This plot will challenge Hitch’s practice. However, this does not happen until the second half. For the most part, his practices seem to work well until the second half of the story. Even then, they only seem to not work because of Allegra finds Albert’s awkward qualities endearing. However, this revelation makes Hitch rethink his practice.

Hitch’s Love Life

Hitch’s practice and approach seems to only help socially awkward male characters who Hitch used to resemble. In flashback, the audience sees Hitch’s awkward and clingy college relationship to Cressida Baylor (Robinne Lee). Cressida also appeared more in the original cut of the film, but Andy Tennant felt that this was unnecessary.

Similarly, many of the challenges Hitch faces seem arbitrary and unrelated to his character. His main challenges seem to center around Hitch’s relationship with Sara. Over the first half of the story, his challenges with Sara seem to be about mild embarrassments (accidentally kicking her in the head, getting his shirt ripped in a cab), mild inconveniences out of his control (another man talking to Sara, his jet ski malfunctioning), and food allergies that cause his face to swell up. All of these problems seem to work more as part of a comedic set piece and rarely ever come back. Their dates do not go wrong because of character and story problems, but because of absurdity unrelated to the story.

When Hitch gets challenged later in the story, his response is to shut himself off to the rest of the world. This causes both Sarah and Albert to confront him. The latter’s confrontation causes Hitch to turn things around.

How He addresses the Audience

In terms of storytelling, Hitch often tells the audience the plot and characters rather than having them experience it visually and dramatically. Characters will describe events after they happen rather than the filmmaker allowing the audience to see them.

Hitch opens the film describing his practice to us with a series of vignettes setting up various characters. He addresses the audience like he would address one of his clients including describing how the woman they are pursuing think.

Although Hitch opens with the character talking to the audience, it quickly switches over to voice over narration. The only time that Hitch addresses the audience in the middle of the film is when he addresses Albert from his POV. Therefore, he is no longer talking to the audience, but to a character.

This sort of framing and camera placement appears a few times in the story. Hitch is not the only character who looks at the camera, but in Hitch’s case, he looks and talks to the audience rather than at a separate character.

Women in the Story

Hitch looks at dating from a predominantly male perspective. The story focuses on men tricking women into loving them or, as Hitch puts it, tricking women “into getting out of their own way.” In this world, Hitch seems to act not only as helpful figure, but as an essential one to weed out the bad men.

When not presented as something to achieve, female characters in the story seem to almost universally have the trait of being unlucky in love. Almost all of them cannot find a good man to be with. This includes Sara, her friend Casey (Julie Ann Emery), Allegra Cole, and a woman at a speed dating “who hasn’t gotten laid in a year.” Hitch acts as a superhero who gets the narrative’s version of “good people” together.

Women Related to Hitch

Hitch looks at dating from a predominantly male perspective. The story focuses on men tricking women into loving them or as Hitch puts it tricking women “into getting out of their own way.” In this world, Hitch seems to act not only as helpful figure, but as an essential one to weed out the bad men.

When not presented as something to achieve, female characters in the story seem to almost universally have the trait of being unlucky in love. Almost all of them cannot find a good man to be with. This includes Sara, her friend Casey (Julie Ann Emery), Allegra Cole, and a woman at a speed dating “who hasn’t gotten laid in a year.” Hitch acts as a superhero who gets the narrative’s version of “good people” together.

Women Related to Hitch

In the second act of the movie, Sara jumps to a conclusion that Hitch set Casey up on a horrible date with Vance Munson, even though Hitch refused to work with him. She then writes a column that ruins Hitch’s practice. However, she does this impulsively, even though she is given every opportunity to not do it. Her boss (Adam Arkin) asks if she wants to publish it. She then goes to Hitch’s house for a date, but picks a fight with him instead of trying to get his side of the story. Now with his practice ruined, the rest of the plot focuses on Hitch having to overcome his hurt feelings and set everything right.

When Hitch goes to reunite with Sara, all of his old awkward tendencies come back and he messes up apologizing to her. All of his old clingy tendencies come back. This includes Hitch saying he will never give up and jumping on her car. He does all of this after seeing with another man. Hitch finally wins her over once again by using a speech about flying with jumping on the car. After all of this, Hitch learns that the man is her brother-in-law.

Sexuality in the Film

Hitch tends to focus on an idealized love more than sex (which takes place mostly offscreen). Hitch’s world emphasizes romance over sex.

However, sexuality plays an important part. The last shot of the opening has a man and woman in bed after sleeping together. Hitch also has a firm no dancing policy and says that women relate dancing to sex. Similarly, Hitch believes that women believe the first kiss will tell them everything about the relationship.

A large part of the plot revolves around businessman Vance Munson going to Hitch so he can have a one night stand with gossip columnist Sara’s friend Casey. This part also takes place offscreen as seeing it does not matter to the story. It is about spreading a rumor that will end Hitch’s career.

In terms of gay characters, Hitch has three: Allegra’s friend Magnus “Maggie” Forrester (Austin Lysy), Sara’s co-worker Geoff (Nathan Lee Graham), and Hitch’s doorman Raoul (Maulik Pancholy). Oftentimes, these characters act implicitly gay and explicitly effeminate. The film winks at the audience with them. The most explicit reference to homosexuality in the film is when Maggie asks if Albert is gay after he gets charmed by Albert.

Conclusion

In both cases, the story build up to a character looking straight into the camera and admitting the errors of their ways.

After discovering that the older Liz has found herself an even younger man than Alfie, he goes to the Brooklyn bridge to talk things over with us. Alfie admits chips and cracks in his own façade. The film flashes back to all the women Alfie loved and mistreated. He also tries to reconcile with a married woman (Jane Krakowski) he slept with at the beginning of the movie, but it is too late. The film ends on a remorseful tone before switching over to credits that show the cast and crew.

After setting up Sara’s friend Casey, Hitch admits that there are no “basic principles.” This goes against all the rules he established earlier. By the end of the story, he admits that he acts as a little more than a social lubricant rather than as the end all be all of dating wisdom.  The film then switches over to a dance scene with the main cast, giving the film a fun light note to end on.

With this final scene, both movies transition into an ending where the character gives up their old believes, but still controls the narrative.