Directed by Oliver Stone; screenplay by Stone, Christopher Kyle and Laeta Kalogridis
Starring Colin Farrell, with Angelina Jolie, Val Kilmer, Anthony Hopkins, Jared Leto, Rosario Dawson and a cast of thousands
Rated R; 178 minutes
Hint #1 that you’re in trouble with Alexander comes when you’re greeted by an onscreen narrator, even though the film kisses three hours in length and despite the fact that the narrator is played by an actor as good as Anthony Hopkins. One would think Oliver Stone is a talented enough director to tell his story without the need of Hopkins’ measured cadences, but despite this helping hand the movie has tons of plot but no real story or discernible emotional through-line.
In fact, we left the theater wondering what in the hell Oliver Stone’s purpose was in making this movie at all. There does seem to be some kind of political message, albeit extremely muddled, about the dangers of invading other countries and trying to impose one’s culture on them. If Alexander is a cautionary tale for Bush, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz et. al., more power to it. Unfortunately the political meanings, like everything else in this overproduced mish-mash, are contradictory and lack resonance.
Or is Alexander a take on the Oedipus myth? Alex’s mother Olympias, played by Angelina Jolie’s lips and about three dozen snakes that always attend her, was in this film a Freudian nightmare, simultaneously worshipping her son and pushing him away. Far, far away. Alexander’s motivation in conquering the entire known world may well have been to avoid those awkward family dinners, especially after mom conspired to kill dad (Philip of Macedon, played by Val Kilmer). Hint #2 that you’re in trouble is when you realize Val Kilmer is giving the most restrained performance in the entire movie.
Let’s give Alexander some credit. The action sequences are amazing. They’re bloody, violent and shocking, no mean feat in this age of hyper-violent video games. Much has been made of the battle scenes demonstrating just how brilliant a military tactician Alexander was, but it’s still unclear whether he was indeed a great general or just lucky (not that those are mutually exclusive).
Even here, though, the narrative devices and symbolism are simultaneously heavy-handed and confusing. Stone provides eagle’s-eye-views of the crucial battle scene (Alexander’s confrontation with the Persian king Darius) with a literal, actual eagle who haunts the movie, and represents Alexander’s ambition? His folly? The will of the gods? Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom?
Hint #3 that Alexander is in trouble are the accents. I don’t expect Colin Farrell to actually speak with an Ancient Macedonian accent, whatever that might be. And Alexander doesn’t fall into the style of the old Biblical and Roman epics, which re-played the American Revolution by having the heroes speak good honest American while the bad guys and emperors sneered in clipped British tones. Alexander’s linguistic soup has Colin speaking in his native Irish brogue. There are spotty attempts by others in the cast to also approximate the Emerald Isle’s lilt, presumably to make Colin sound less out of place, but all this does is remind the audience that Ireland is really far away from Ancient Greece, and at this time in history was occupied by Celtic tribes who painted themselves blue.
Angelina Jolie speaks in an accent that seems composed of equal parts Bela Lugosi and Billy Bob Thornton. No vial of his blood is visible, but the snakes probably drank it.
Despite the confusion rampant in this three-hour-long slog, we have done you, the reader, the service of uncovering the real theme of Alexander. It’s Oliver Stone’s discomfort with man-on-man love. Oh, he’s fine with Alexander and his lifelong friend Hephaistion (Jared Leto) pledging their undying devotion as they gaze swooningly at each other during at least three teary-eyed confessions of love that would not be out of place in a bodice-ripper. These are each followed by…a big hug between the two warriors/teddy bears. It’s not only a cock-tease for the gay men in the audience (who often attend these swords-and-sandals films to see shirtless guys in skirts, I mean tunics), it’s so obviously forced that the effect is both frustrating and comical.
Also hypocritical. Stone is fine with showing men gouging each other’s eyes out, shoving spears through their viscera and bludgeoning each other with rocks, but men kissing each other is TOO ICKY for him. What a pussy.
It’s amazing. Farrell and Leto are clearly the romantic couple of this overbaked epic. Others in the film talk about men having sex with other men, as well as with boys. It’s an accepted fact of life in this time period, especially on the battle front, far from home. But there will be no leading men kissing each other in this picture. There’s more gay action in an entire season of “Will and Grace,” which is really pathetic.
Farrell’s Alexander does take a wife or two, and has a rambunctious wedding night with Rosario Dawson’s Roxanne, whose foreplay technique includes holding a knife to his throat. If that wasn’t enough to turn Alex off, his wedding night had already been interrupted by boyfriend Hephaistion slipping an extremely symbolic ring on his finger. Roxanne is probably upset because she catches them…talking.
Was star Colin Farrell’s discomfort with kissing another man what kept the “no lips” rule in effect for most of the film? (He does kiss one nameless effeminate servant character.) I doubt it; Farrell has played gay and bisexual characters in other films. No, we blame Oliver Stone. He’s a manly man, and so was Alexander. And according to this film, he was also a crashing bore.
We left this film without any sense of why we should care about Alexander. He conquered the world but left no heir, and his empire was carved up within a generation. He dreamed of uniting the world, but was he a “liberator” or just a bloodthirsty tyrant? It’s a measure of how dopey this film is that we’re bored even asking these questions.