starring Colin Farrell, Angelina Jolie, Val Kilmer, Jared Leto
screenplay by Oliver Stone and Christopher Kyle and Laeta Kalogridis
directed by Oliver Stone
by Walter Chaw SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. Oliver Stone's Alexander is packed tight to the girders with catchphrases like "By the sweet breath of Aphrodite" and "By Apollo's eye" and "By Dionysus yours is the very soul of Prometheus!" It's stuffed to the gills with sword-and-sandal histrionics and props that become kitsch artifacts the instant they're rolled out for display in this awards season's gaudiest rummage sale. If it's not going to set anybody's codpiece on fire, Alexander at least lays claim to being one of the funniest movies of the year. It would have worn the title Oliver! more comfortably, opening as it does with Virgil's "fortune favours the bold" and ending, after a ridiculously long time, with the not-stunning revelation that what Stone has done is imagine the travails of a fourth-century B.C. Macedonian king as his very own. Conspiracies abound, popularity in the court of public opinion fades, bottomless campaign budgets are squandered in faraway lands for mysterious personal reasons, Oedipus rears his travel-worn head, and gay subtext begins to feel a little homophobic because it's subtext. Rosario Dawson in all her animalized glory? No problem. Colin Farrell giving Jared Leto a little peck on the cheek? Not in this house, buddy.
Stone will assure that great pains were taken to make this film as historically accurate as possible, and the riposte is that Alexander's been so picked over that there's hardly any meat left on the bone; a tedious, sycophantic making-of tome by Oxford historian Robin Lane Fox erroneously speaks of both a scene between Alexander and his mother Olympias (Angelina Jolie) that plays too much like Hamlet vs. Gertrude and the uncomfortable relationship between Alexander and his horse Bucephalos (which, along with most of the rest of the film, screams Caligula) in terms of problems overcome. However finessed and self-aware and Stone's screenplay may ultimately be, what's on the screen seems like a film inextricable from the confused politics of its director: Stone portrays Alexander as a visionary global expansionist (cross-breeding, group hugs) to the extent that he soft sells his maniacal will-to-power, skips blithe over major plot points, and jumps backwards and forwards in time with little rhyme or reason. Through it all hangs the realization that Alexander is an awful lot like Platoon.
Like Charlie Sheen's Chris Taylor, the Stone surrogate of Platoon, Alexander is from a good home and does what he does generally out of a sense of duty (the number of times that he's alternately praised for doing what his dad would have done and excoriated for doing what his dad would not have done is a deadly drinking game waiting to happen), positioning him as the holy naïf, as it were, amongst a legion of conscripted, lower-caste grunts. And like Platoon again, there's a wholly unnecessary voiceover that's obvious to the point of actually insulting besides. (Alexander is pre-Christian civ for dummies.) What separates Alexander from Platoon, sadly, is the former's complete lack of any redemptive moments of grandeur, of a tap into the zeitgeist, of any hint of pulp poetry. The film is painfully corny and possessed of only a middle act: no beginning, no conclusion. A five-minute sequence where Stone slaps a mauve colour filter on the lens only serves to ping that thrift-store chic pleasure centre for which most students of irony were bracing from the opening, planetarium trance-funk credits.
Alexander is a good idea sunk by over-production and bizarre camp. I wondered with superior mirth if Vangelis had done the horrific score and came up a little short when I discovered that he had; my question for Vangelis is why is a closing speech delivered over a plaster bust of Alexander scored to "O Canada"? (You can really take that Vietnam thing too far, you know.) The thing with Stone is that he defeats elitist reads of his work because he openly wallows in crudeness and pap, doing his best to wrap his Ozzie & Harriett head around the ugliness and inequity of the adult world. He's a filmmaker the way that Reagan was a politician: he takes the impulses of the Fifties and tries to dress them up with a shiny wrap of contemporary glitz. Comparisons of his work to old formulas bearing a thin coat of pizzazz are more than valid--they strike at the heart of Stone's vision of America. The bad read is that Stone is a cynic, seeing spooks in every shadow. I prefer to think of Stone as a zealot for the American dream, and for him, it's dying real hard. We're all June and Ward underneath, see. There's some kind of vast invisible conspiracy to convince us of otherwise.
Farrell is as he always is, a non-factor. Boyfriend Leto has the funniest death scene of the year (it appears as though he's bored to death), Dawson acts like a panther in something that could be read as not only racially but also gender insensitive, and Hopkins mails in another one. Jolie's performance is a puzzlement: her accent is somewhere in the neighbourhood of Natasha of Boris & Natasha fame (you do wonder when she's going to go on a screed about moose und sqvuirrel) while her vamp role, already wearing thin, supports the theory that she's just a Being John Malkovich vessel for Eartha Kitt. Also consider the scene where young Alexander tames a wild stallion by horse-whispering to it that it shouldn't be afraid of its shadow: "It's just a trick of Apollo's! I will call you 'Bucephalos.' Ride on, Bucephalos." Next stop, appointing it to senate and taking it to bed. (Alexander can't even seem to die until Bucephalos does, weird shades of E.T. and Elliot, and Stone isn't entirely unlike Spielberg in his veneration of pop.) Cheesily, a lion's roar replaces the roar of the Macedonian soldiers, and a tiger's growl, part of Stone's over-identification with Nietzsche, replaces the rape-growl at the moment when Alexander realizes that he's truly become his father's son.
And speaking of Oedipus: the spine of the piece. Early on, father King Philip (Val Kilmer) takes young Alexander on a tour of cave paintings of Greek myths. The Oedipus drawing will flash often to help the slower students get up to speed. There's the part where after consummation, Alexander looks down at his new wife and says, "If only you were not a mere reflection of my mother's heart." Too obscure? How about later when Alexander lays a big wet kiss, right on the lips, of mommy Olympias? Okay, try this one: just before he kills trusted commander Cleitus (Gary Stretch), Cleitus morphs into dad Philip--no? How 'bout a flashback shortly thereafter that finds Philip telling Alexander that he is to trust Cleitus as he would trust his father? Or the moment following the death where Stone shows the picture of Oedipus's father murdered? It's not a unifying theme, it's a seventh-grade theme assignment; as far as revelations go, I'm not surprised that Stone has some father issues.
Unfortunately, Stone doesn't reserve his ham-fisting for the Oedipus connections--it's how he tells a story, starting at the beginning with a misguided homage to Citizen Kane. (My favourite is a scene where Alexander says, "You truly are a queen!" and Stone flash-pans from Olympias to Leto's Hephaistion.) It's his high and low: crudeness and sublimity, obvious narration and occasionally brilliant visualization. Alexander purports to tell the story of a royal-turned-hippie world conqueror and ends up telling the story of an elitist-turned-hippie auteur who doesn't understand why he's fallen out of critical favour and, thus feeling a certain amount of righteous self-pity, has amplified his greatest success (Platoon) by ten-thousand in the hope that what results will finally quiet the rabble. Mel Gibson has his 33-year-old martyr with which to identify, now Oliver Stone has a 33-year-old-minus-one-month one of his own. Originally published: November 24, 2004.
You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.