'Alexander,' The Not-So-Great
Friday, November 26, 2004
AS FAR as making a movie about Alexander the Great, Oliver Stone knew at least two things: He could adhere to the known facts about the boy king and still have a salacious, blood-and-gutsy story. Plus, with all the unknowns and what-ifs that are also part of Alexander's history, the director could take the ball and run even farther with it.
"Alexander," which takes us from the legend's earliest childhood to his final undoing in India at age 32, is enjoyable in some places, but dreadful in others. It's boring here and exciting there. And it's almost always goofy. It's $150 million worth of large-scale battles, bacchanalia and overwrought writing -- particularly in its rendition of Alexander (Colin Farrell) as a mama-whipped, militarily gifted but emotionally unstable conqueror.
Alexander can fool Darius and his overwhelming army of Persians at the Battle of Gaugamela. But the kid just can't say no to Olympias (Angelina Jolie), his manipulative, vivacious and python-stroking mother, who seems to be pulling all his psychic strings, even thousands of miles away. ("That's a high ransom she charges for nine months' lodging in the womb," complains Alexander after hearing yet another maternal demand.) Even when he's lifting a mug of drink to his lips, Alexander can see Olympias's face crawling with snakes in the watery reflection. Dr. Freud, they could have used you 2,000 years earlier.
Sexually, Alexander's a mess. As a kid he watches his father (Val Kilmer), the burly, animalistic Philip II, rape his mother, so he tries some of the same rough stuff with his feisty wife, Roxane (Rosario Dawson). He's happier, it seems, with his lifelong male lover, Hephaistion (Jared Leto), who follows Alexander to the bitter end of his campaign.
Alexander's homosexual side is only bashfully explored. (Apparently, some things even Oliver Stone couldn't do in a Warner Bros. picture.) Alexander's friend and former general, Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins), who's the movie's narrator, saucily tells us the only thing that defeated the Macedonian king was "Hephaistion's thighs." But in this movie, the two men merely nuzzle heads. There are no thighs, just whispers.
Despite nearly three hours of screen time, Stone and co-writers Christopher Kyle and Laeta Kalogridis give us a little bit of everything and, ultimately, a whole lot of nothing. Yes, we see the moment when Alexander first sets eyes on and tames wild horse Bucephalus. We learn about his obsession with ancient Greek warrior Achilles and his male lover, Patroclus. And we meet three significant figures in Alexander's life: Hopkins as Ptolemy (his younger counterpart played by Elliot Cowan), Christopher Plummer as Aristotle and Brian Blessed as Alexander's wise wrestling instructor. But the scenes of these last three men could easily have been excised.
Actually, it's hard to know if any scene fits into this movie's overburned scheme of things. Farrell puts a lot of energy into his role, but his character's pulled and tugged in so many directions, we're not sure what to make of him. He's tough in the battlefield, anguished over mutiny from his soldiers, torn between lovers, impulsive and fearful, heedlessly brave and fitfully sensitive. We're even supposed to see Alexander as a visionary, who keeps stating his determination to create a world in which Macedonians shed their disdain for Babylonians and other defeated peoples. It's amazing, really, that he can persuade his army to leave downtown Pellas, let alone take on Europe, North Africa and Asia. But follow him they do. And so we must, too, with only our luminous watches to lead us through the torturous darkness.