I was standing in a theater weeks ago and saw a large banner for Oliver Stone’s epic about Alexander the Great. I listed the names; Colin Farrell, Angelina Jolie, Val Kilmer, Rosario Dawson, Jared Leto. This had to be perhaps the greatest assembly of pretty actors ever in a motion picture. There’s a whole lot of sex appeal there, and Anthony Hopkins, as the film’s reflective narrator, isn’t too shabby looking himself for a man his age. After having seen Alexander, it’s safe to say the actors sure are pretty but the movie is far from it.
Alexander (Farrell) is one of the greatest historical figures. He rose to become a Macedonian king, dominated much of the known world before he was 30, and then died mysteriously at a young age. In flashes to his youth, we see Olympias (Jolie) coaching young Alexander on his future glory. Standing in her way is one-eyed King Phillip (Kilmer), Olympias’ husband though not the father to Alexander. She frets that he will sire a direct heir to the throne, and upon Phillip’s assassination, Alexander reaches new heights. He travels to Babylon with the purpose of avenging his father’s death, rumored to be paid for by Persian gold.
Alexander keeps traveling east conquering new lands but returning kings to their rule and assimilating “barbarians” into his armies. His generals begin to question Alexander’s actions, especially his surprise marriage to an Asian peasant woman (Dawson). He is unable to sire a male heir with her. Hephaistion (Leto), Alexander’s childhood friend and lifelong lover, worries that Alexander has become power hungry and distrustful of those around him. Many of his men only want to see home after seven years of battle. After defeat in India, Alexander decides to turn back but he never sees home again.
For such a lavish biopic, Alexander seems fairly remote. We don’t really get to know much about the psychology of Alexander. He’s a historical figure with equal parts good and bad ready for debate, but whenever Alexander does hit some of its star’s less-than-stellar moments, it seems to gloss right over them. Hopkins will narrate about some town that resisted, then we’ll see a quick image of it burning, and then we move on. Or we’ll see a slew of dead army officials and Hopkins will say, “He slaughtered all he felt were responsible for mutiny, but I’d expect any general to do the same.” There are several moments where we’ll hear Alexander massacred a town, or sold people into slavery, and then we get the next scene. It’s quite comical, almost as if Hopkins is a tour guide at a museum saying things like, “And then Alexander ate all of the first born babies. Moving on now…”
There are just so many awful laugh-out-loud, loopy moments in Alexander. It’s not enough that Jolie speaks in some bizarre accent; to make sure the audience understands that she’s duplicitous she has a snake wrapped around her in every scene. I’m not kidding; every scene that Jolie is in she has snakes coiled around her.
There’s a moment late in the film that is so hilariously dreadful, it’s hard to believe what you’re seeing. Hephaistion has caught ill and is on his death bed. Alexander is wrought with emotion but then strolls over to a window and begins another huge speech that ends up being all about his glory. What makes the scene go from bad to I-cannot-believe-they’re-doing-this bad is that Hephaistion, in the background, is convulsing and dying. You see his body tense up, twitch, leap into the air, and practically do some kind of triple axle, all while Alexander speechifies blithely unaware. I challenge anyone not to laugh.
Stone needlessly complicates his film with flashbacks, giant leaps forward in chronology skipping Alexander’s rise to respected leader, and skittish hallucinations. Stone is accustomed to breaking up the chronology of his films, but Alexander is too long and too campy to play around with for effect.
The acting of Alexander is set to overkill. Farrell seems miscast and doesn’t have the weight to carry such a historically meaty role. He looks pretty, and he can snarl like a pro, but the only thing worse than his overblown performance is his terrible blonde hair. This just wasn’t the right role for this talented actor. Jolie is so naturally seductive that she could have played her role mute and been effective, maybe more so. Kilmer seems to be working some kind of Irish accent but he comes off the best of the three. Leto gets overshadowed by his bangs.
Alexander also seems to speed over its star’s bisexuality. It wasn’t uncommon for men to bed both sexes, but the movie seems terrified of portraying anything beyond longing glances. Alexander and Hephaistion are reduced to some whispers here and there, but the limit of their physical affection stops at hugs. It actually is kind of funny the amount of times they hug, which I think is over five. You can tell the filmmakers wanted more but then were like, “Eh, let them hug again.” In some weird turn, it seems the film shows more depth with Alexander’s relationship with his horse than with his lifelong lover.
For a three hour movie about a military man who conquered much of the known world, there’s a shocking lack of action. Alexander has two action set-pieces and then that’s it. The first set-piece is a battle between Alexander and the vastly numbered forces of the King of Persia. The battle lasts twenty minutes and is disjointed, bloody, and perfectly indicative of the confusion of war. Stone cuts back and forth between majestic aerial shots showing the progress of battle and hand-to-hand combat amid the sand and dust clouds. Stone also labels certain sections of the armies, which gives a greater understanding of the battle. It shouldn’t be a surprise that this battle is the highlight of Alexander.
The only other action set-piece comes very late in the movie. Alexander’s forces have marched all the way into India. Warriors on the backs of monstrous elephants stampede onward to intercept Alexander’s armies. This battle is also chaotic, and Stone utilizes a lot of quick point-of-view shots like people getting squashed by pachyderms. The action is satisfying if a bit over the top (a warrior gets impaled on a slow-moving elephant’s tusks), that is until Stone goes off the deep end. Alexander gets wounded in battle and suddenly the film switches tints, bathing everything in reddish and bright neon hues. Everything has a tin outline. It’s rather ridiculous and unfortunately reminds me of Ralph Bakshi’s misguided animated Lord of the Rings.
That’s all you get for action, so I hope you like speeches rich with superfluous historical name-drops, because that’s what Alexander is all about. I’d bet money that nearly an hour of this three-hour opus involves people delivering speeches. Alexander rallies his men, Phillip talks about the Greek tragedies, Olympias strokes Alexander’s greatness and need for kingship, his generals talk about his decisions, and then we get endless moments of Alexander talking about a new world, bringing people together, and respecting other cultures. Alexander seems to go dead as soon as some character pulls out a soapbox. Worst of all, many speeches involve lots of historical references that an audience cannot be expected to keep up with. The overall effect is like listening to an unwanted party guest drone on. Alexander may be trying to talk to death his enemy.
What makes all of this worse is that the dialogue and the drama are so melodramatic. The center of Alexander’s creaky psychology is a domineering mother and a scornful father who scream at each other a lot. Whenever someone has a disagreement in Alexander they resort to over emotive screaming. You may start tuning the actors out after awhile. Much of the dialogue is terrible, but there is the occasional howler line like, “It is said that the only defeat Alexander suffered was Hephaistion’s thighs.” You may concur with Alexander’s men and want to return to your family as soon as possible after watching this.
I was trying to think how something like this, so misguided and off the rails, could chug along without a peep from someone saying, “Hey, maybe this isn’t working.” Then I got it. You see, Alexander is Oliver Stone. Both men are revered for previous victories, both men are generals that take full control of their armies, and both men are fiercely stubborn. If someone questioned Alexander’s decisions, chances are they could be killed. Now I’m fairly certain Stone wouldn’t go that far (there may be many graves dug over the grumblings over U-Turn), but I can see how difficult voicing dissension might have been.
Stone’s long in the waiting Alexander epic is bloody, ponderous, exaggerated, talky, sumptuous and off-the-charts loony. This is a giant mess only a visionary director could amass. Only historical junkies might be entertained by Alexander, and the rest of us will just be glazed over. We never get to really know Alexander, nor do we even get our money’s worth for action, so unless you click your heels to the thought of hours of speeches, skip Alexander. Trust me, it’s far from great.
Nate’s Grade: C-