Movies

'Alexander': A Crying Shame

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By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 24, 2004

If you played a word-association game with "Alexander the Great," you'd probably come up with "conqueror," "king," "warrior," "legend," "despot," "wastrel" or "killer." Unfortunately, Oliver Stone has chosen to build his epic of the Macedonian military genius around a word highly unlikely to make the list: "crybaby."

In Stone's view, this is a highly neurotic young man whose emotions, far from being repressed or disciplined as one would expect of a great soldier of the 4th century B.C., are worn on his sleeve, except, of course, that he doesn't have sleeves, the shirt still being two millennia down the road. So he wears them on his wrist -- and it's a limp one.

That's the weirdest aspect of the extremely weird, if absurdly expensive, movie. Stone gives himself much credit of "telling the truth" about Alexander's bisexuality as if it's some progressive badge of honor, but at the same time he can't get away from the cruelest, least imaginative stereotyping: His Alexander, as expressed through the weepy histrionics of Colin Farrell, is more like a desperate housewife than a soldier. He's always crying, his voice trembles, his eyes fill with tears. He's much less interesting, except as a basket case, than Richard Burton's Alexander of far less enlightened times -- 1956 -- in Robert Rossen's "Alexander the Great." Burton got Alexander's dissipation, but also his martial spirit; this was, after all, one of the great light-cavalry commanders of all time and a general who fought by leading his troops, sword in hand, not directing them from some safe hill. But in this one you think: Teri Hatcher could kick this twerp's butt.

In many ways the movie feels 50 years old already. It offers the standard 1950s melodramatic theory of Alexander's sexual orientation: the scheming, sexualized, domineering mother, and the distant, uncaring father. So much for today's theories of genetic predetermination. Yet at the same time, it fails to account for what was remarkable about Alexander, rather than what was not.

His bisexuality, after all, is fairly commonplace in the world of this movie, while his will to conquer, and his skill in actually bringing it off, are not. But we never see what drives him. He never projects much in the way of ambition or vision; his fixation is always emotional, and the occasional attempts to match his motives to his accomplishments don't resonate. Equally, we never sense his animal magnetism -- Farrell showed more on Letterman on Monday night than he does in three hours of world conquest -- or his leader's charisma. He seems to motivate by pouting or holding his breath.

The movie lacks any convincing ideas about Alexander. Stone advances but one, the notion that Alexander was an early multiculturalist, who wanted to "unify" the globe. He seems not to recognize this as a standard agitprop of the totalitarian mind-set, always repulsive, but more so here in a movie that glosses over the boy-king's frequent massacres. Conquerors always want "unity," Stalin a unity of Russia without kulaks, Hitler a Europe without Jews, Mao a China without deviationists and wreckers. All of these boys loved to wax lyrical about unity while they were breaking human eggs in the millions, and so it was with Alexander, who wanted world unity without Persians, Egyptians, Sumerians, Turks and Indians.

It has the same biopic failings as any MGM product of the mid-'30s, in that it rushes from high point to high point, it synopsizes (he fought dozens of battles; it dramatizes only two) and it whitewashes truth (Alexander's ruinous retreat from India gets about four seconds). The mechanism of the plot is trite: Ptolemy, one of A-team's leading generals, now grown august and stentorian as only Anthony Hopkins can project august stentorianism, recalls the days of Alex as he dictates his memoirs. Yak yak yak, blah blah blah. Hopkins's Ptolemy is a wordy old geezer, and his prose style, as crafted by Stone himself and co-writers Christopher Kyle and Laeta Kalogridis, has that kind of purple glaze Hollywood has always used to signify "in olden times." Other trite old-timey signifiers include too much Maybelline eyeliner (and I'm talking about the guys!), too many subtitles in a font that might be called Greco-Roman 36-point Bodoni, with V's for U's, and thunderous bad battle music that seems to have been composed only for trumpet and trombone.

As a director of performance, Stone is hopeless. For one thing, Farrell so overacts with the wah-wah-wahs gushing that none of the other young Greek and Macedonian generals makes an impression. Since all these young men are stunningly handsome, in shaggy hair and cool clothes, it's sort of like hanging out with a rock band. Musicians, however, don't have to have personalities, while characters do.

Alexander's great love was said to be Hephaistion, who is played in the film by Jared Leto, but unless you know Jared Leto by face, even late in the movie you'll have no idea which one he was. I thought he was this other guy, equally handsome, equally vapid, equally unmemorable, whom Alexander prongs with a spear in a drunken rage late in the movie. But that was some other guy.

Then comes the moment when we Meet the Parents. Brother, talk about Christmas with the cranks! Dad -- the Macedonian king Philip, from whom Alexander inherited the tiny empire he was to build into a gigantic one -- is played by Val Kilmer in hearty barbarian mode. He seems to have wandered in from a remake of "The Vikings," shooting in the next Moroccan village down the coastline. Loved the one-eyed thing, which appears to be a Stone fetish. The movie is full to brimming with one-eyed men, which demonstrates two things: The Greek battle helmets had eye slots, and there was extra money in the makeup budget for putty.

Then there's Angelina Jolie as Mom. Really, words fail me here. But let's try: Give this young woman the hands-down award for best impression of Bela Lugosi while hampered by a 38-inch bust line. Though everyone else in the picture speaks in some variation of a British accent, poor Jolie has been given the Transylvanian throat-sucker's throaty, sibilant vowels, as well as a wardrobe of snakes. She represents the spirit of kitsch that fills the movie, and with all her crazed posturing and slinking, it's more of a silent movie performance than one from the sound era. Theda Bara, call your agent.

And finally, the battles. Hollywood should realize that these big tiff things aren't nearly as impressive as they once were, particularly in the aftermath of three years of Iron Age combat apotheosized in the great "Lord of the Rings" pictures; when you've seen Orcs and hobbits fighting for the future of the world, it's a little hard to get excited about Persians and Greeks fighting over someone's imperial hubris 2,300 years ago. To be fair, the film does a pretty good job of explaining and dramatizing the tactics of Gaugamela (thought to be near Mosul, Iraq, today), where the clever Alexander, with 40,000 men, outthought and outfought Darius III's 200,000, including a daring cavalry strike (which Alexander himself led) that drove Darius from the field.

But there's nothing singular here. When you see what the Chinese are doing with action (in the upcoming "House of Flying Daggers") and even what younger and more inventive American directors are doing, these fights seem very much a part of the rest of the movie. It's the same-old, same-old of charging into battle from half a century ago.

Even amplified by CGI, which can multiply a thousand extras into 40,000, nothing in the war-making feels unique. We don't learn anything new about this kind of fighting and the imagery -- bigger in scale but not bigger in vision from the past -- feels stale. The one fresh image, that of Alexander on horseback rearing at an enemy pasha on elephantback, has been diluted of its power by overexposure on television ads. Like every other second of more than 10,000 seconds in "Alexander," it doesn't engage in the least.

Alexander (173 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for battle violence and sexual scenes and themes.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company

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