Alexander (2004)
Reviewed in December 2004
Director: Oliver Stone. Cast: Colin Farrell, Angelina Jolie, Val Kilmer, Jared Leto, Anthony Hopkins, Rosario Dawson, Elliot Cowan, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Gary Stretch, John Kavanagh, Rory McCann, Joseph Morgan, Ian Beattie, Nick Dunning, Francisco Bosch, Annelise Hesme, Christopher Plummer, Brian Blessed, David Bedella. Screenplay: Oliver Stone, Christopher Kyle, and Laeta Kalogridis.


Photo © 2004 Warner Bros. Pictures/Intermedia Films
Oliver Stone's interminable picture is decidedly not titled Alexander the Great, perhaps because the film knows enough, at least at this minimal level, not to write checks that its ass can't cash. There is nothing great about Stone's Alexander, but this in itself cannot be considered a surprise. In fact, I've considered this outcome inevitable since the moment I heard the project outline. A director who was once reliably fascinating, whose recent films have become totally unhinged. A revived genre of prehistorical epic pageantry that's been churning out dud after dud for the past several years, on the big and the small screens. A cast of shifty and mercurial talents who all incline toward embarrassing hamminess when there isn't a serene hand or a coherent project to guide them. A production that transpired amidst a breathless race to outfox a competing Alexander project, since abandoned, from the razzle-dazzle mind of Baz Luhrmann. Now, seriously. Was there any reason to hope for anything more than a lumbering mediocrity?

That's what Alexander turns out to be in its best moments, which are the passages where Stone lets his camp impulses run riot, without any sober attempts at self-redemption. Several of these come courtesy of Angelina Jolie as Alexander's mother Olympias, who slithers around his canopied bedroom and gets all sheela-na-gig the minute her drunken husband Philip charges in to accost her. Squatting on all fours, pressing a fist into her loins while screaming atop her lungs, Jolie hath a fury that surpasses mere scorn. Here is an actress who is either trying to recuperate the since-diminished electricity of her early career in one supercharged swoop, or else is nothing if not obedient, even when her deranged director tells her to personify the figure of the vagina dentata. Forever wriggling in unison with her own private clutch of vipers and pythons, Jolie's Olympias is an absurd creation in a movie whose best hope is to be absurd. Later in the movie (it feels like several days later in theater-time), poor Rosario Dawson has to devise a strategy for out-vamping Jolie, and the best she can do is brandish a cutlass while she howls buck-naked atop the marital mattress—trying her hardest not to smudge all those swirling chalk lines that some costumer's assistant has traced from her toes to her shoulders.

When Napoleon Dynamite ages a little further into the R.Crumb demographic, he'll be drawing these women as the riders and tenders of his beloved ligers and dragons. It's the only universe where they are remotely plausible, but still, I can't help thinking Jolie at least had a much better time on this shoot than Colin Farrell did, stuck playing an Alexander who is scripted as a basically fretful and downcast person—about as un-jolly as you could possibly be while conquering the known world and naming it all after yourself. The credits report that Jared Leto appears here in the role of Alexander's lover and sidekick Hephaistion, but the Persian king Darius looked more like Jared Leto; I'm pretty sure Hephaistion was played by Jennifer Connelly. (The lip aquiver and the pooling blue eyes are the giveaways.) Anthony Hopkins, almost as stout as the Alexandrian library, rolls around as the elder Ptolemy, who is half-remembering this whole tale for the benefit of mostly nameless Egyptian scribes, who record his testimonies of war and melodrama while some of their compeers, also half-naked, putter around in Hopkins' wake incessantly watering the plants.

Why does everyone in this movie, from the stars to the extras, seem so goddamn bored? That's the real surprise of Alexander. You know the movie is bound to be swill: imperialist daydreams indigestibly stewed together with limp Oedipal anxiety and unpersuasive pacifist lip service. But you don't expect Alexander himself to come across as such a titanically mundane figure. Stone's whole career is dotted by bland, boiled-fish protagonists who are duly compensated by the zinger supporting casts and the hyperkinetic visuals. Anyone who would cast Charlie Sheen twice in a row to anchor Platoon and Wall Street isn't trying too hard to sell his heroes, and the mere memory of Kevin Costner's simpering discontent in JFK is an enduring blight on that dark-hearted, hypnotically paranoid collage. Tom Cruise tried hard in Born on the Fourth of July, but the dramatic stillbirth of the picture was a direct result of a lurking imprecision in the role and the character. Even Woody Harrelson in Natural Born Killers and Sean Penn in U-Turn had to impart layers of danger and interest that were missing from their roles as written; only Anthony Hopkins as Nixon has truly commanded his own center stage.

Alexander, against all odds, is a dispiriting return to this unmourned pattern. He's the dullest person in the movie, excepting the platoon of soldiers and seconds-in-command who endlessly orbit around him without ever differentiating themselves. When his mother tyrannizes him, he knits his brow and looks sorrowfully down toward her toes. When Philip, vaguely impersonated by Val Kilmer, goads his son into would-be anger, Farrell only replies with milky indecision. Editing and story structure don't do him any favors, as it's never quite clear who Alexander is supposed to be. A scene where Philip banishes Alexander permanently from the kingdom is immediately followed by another sequence, wholly unexplained, where he is raiding nearby Persia as the new Macedonian king. Several protracted battle scenes seem to end in defeat for Alexander's armies; at the very best, the copious blood loss and unresolved clamor suggest a weary, wasteful draw. But invariably, these slogfests are alleged by the succeeding scenes to have been glorious successes. Alexander strides into a hopelessly two-dimensional CGI Babylon with all the pomp of a conquering hero, and all the while, we are wondering, "But you failed to capture the king. And all your men hate you. And the battle ended with you on the verge of tears, amid a field of corpses. You won?"

In short, there isn't a single scene in the film where Alexander appears at all great, even though Hopkins' voiceovers keep assuring us that he is. The bipolar cutting rhythms and uninformative camera placement muddy his battle strategies beyond all appreciation. Though he never lays eyes on his mother after the first half-hour or so of the movie, Alexander continues to be haunted by her pleas and demands. Jolie ambles around her royal quarters speaking out loud to herself; we gather she is sending letters to Alexander (at what address?), but the editing suggests she is communicating telepathically, like when Mariah and her manager wrote that song together via ESP in Glitter. Improbably enough, as far as Stone's camera lets us see, Alexander inherits Babylon much as he finds it and doesn't build anything new in any of his travels. The myth that he ventured into unexplored lands is duly undercut by the evident fact that these lands were already peopled—generally by people who appear to whup his ass once again. There's a semi-rousing mutiny sequence in the movie's third hour when his squadrons have had it up to here with their seemingly endless deployment, but the force of the scene is dissipated by the entire two hours that precede it—no one ever seemed to like Alexander very much to begin with.

It sounds like the movie I am describing could be a conscious act of revisionism, where a modern director plucks some luminary from the misty pasts and, at risk of glib anachronism, shows us what a hard, alienating kernel of cruelty, compromise, or blind luck actually lies at the heart of a gilded reputation. But Alexander doesn't feel like that kind of film. If Stone actually wishes to demystify Alexander, then the grandiloquence of Rodrigo Prieto's super-wide photography and of Vangelis' anthemic score are not the way to do it; Hopkins' panegyrics, delivered before an obviously matte-composed background, reek of cheese but not of irony. Even the montage and camera tricks that usually define Stone's narcotic aesthetic are comparatively subdued in Alexander, which has such a hare-brained script—bizarrely eliding a huge chunk of exposition regarding Alexander and Philip, and then even more bizarrely picking it back up two hours later—that empty, rousing spectacle is probably the only viable option. The most potent thing in the movie is the crimson plumage atop Alexander's warrior helmet, which cuts a mean swath through the desaturated hues of the battle sequences and gives us the visual point of reference we badly need amidst all the disorganized hubbub. (It's also much preferable to that haystack of a blond wig that Farrell has to put up with when he isn't at war.)

Much later, when Alexander is felled in India, his brush with death is rendered through some bold color expressionism, with the trees of the forest and every silhouette in Alexander's midst suddenly tinted magenta. There's no explaining the effect, which isn't repeated anywhere else in the movie, but at least it makes you sit up and take notice. Pity, though, that one of the few times the film comes alive occurs when Alexander is about to expire. Gladiator and Braveheart were just as frivolous and nonsensical as this tosh, but in spurts, they connected with the audience's visual appetites. I wonder why the coherence and joy of these pictures seems to drown in proportion to the actual prestige of the hero being lionized. Crowe's Maximus, an almost anonymous historical type, was by infinite degrees the most compellingly played of these characters, and he anchored the most reasonably diverting film. William Wallace was at least a legitimate footnote to European history, and despite the repugnant juvenilism of Gibson's standard performance, the character had a pulse. Farrell's Alexander is D.O.A. from the beginning, and the one thing he seems capable of leading is the movie—he takes the whole thing with him, straight to oblivion. D–


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