An unmitigated disaster, Oliver Stone’s sprawling Alexander is an unbearable 173 minute alternative to Chinese water torture. No movie in recent memory combines atrocious screenwriting, atrocious acting, atrocious directing, and atrocious editing as effectively as this lumbering marathon. Its *defenders*—and they’re few in number—have hailed Alexander as a flawed, but ambitious, motion picture. I fail to see what’s so ambitious about it. Sure, Stone’s always been fascinated by conspiracies and double-crossing (JFK, Nixon) as well as societal conventions (Natural Born Killers), and he sacrifices aspects of the normal epic in Alexander to focus on Alexander’s many weaknesses—and the public perception of him throughout his life. So what? Almost all the sequences of this kind—Alexander’s initial drunken shouting match with King Philip, for instance, or his Oedipal scenes with his mother—are so hammy and over-the-top that they’re impossible to take seriously. It doesn’t help that we’re asked to buy Angelina Jolie as Colin Farrell’s mother. Yeah, okay…it was particularly convincing when she didn’t age a day over the span of sixteen years. Hell, when Farrell finally gives in and kisses her at the end, I was thinking, “About fucking time!”
The narrative is a jumbled mess—characters pop in and out of the picture, yell something at Alexander about what they think of him, and then vanish for 35 minutes. Except for Alexander (Farrell), Hephaistion (Jared Leto), Olympias (Jolie), Philip (Val Kilmer, wearing a distinctive scarred right eye), and a few others, it’s difficult to keep the characters straight, but more troubling is that there’s no emotional connection developed with anybody. Furthermore, if Stone is really aiming for a ‘different kind of epic,’ then can we really forgive all the patented epic melodrama, the hokey score, the predictable slow-motion—few attempting the genre can avoid at least a moment or two of this, but Alexander is ceaselessly irritating and in the most obvious ways imaginable. If Alexander wants to be gutsy and different from the Gladiators of the world, Stone has to at least be consistent with his goals and approach.
The terrible script doesn’t help matters, but even worse is the horrific acting, much of it coming from performers I generally like—ironically, only Val Kilmer (whom I don’t care much for) successfully vanishes into his role. Jolie is sexy as usual—being draped with snakes only helps her already-dripping sex appeal—but she’s so campy that we can’t take seriously any of the mother-son moments. Leto, Rosario Dawson as Alexander’s Macedonian wife, and Hopkins are all beneath comment. Farrell is the true problem, though. I’ve really enjoyed his work in Tigerland, Minority Report, and Phone Booth, and consider him a very talented upcoming actor—that said, he’s absolutely dreadful (and miscast) here. Even though Alexander extensively focuses on Alexander’s vulnerable & paranoid side, Farrell loses us from the start with his wimpy tone and lack of confidence—there’s no reason for us to believe that this man will become Alexander the Great. To care about Alexander’s vulnerability, we have to at least get a sense of the other side of the coin—the Alexander who conquered millions. Instead, Alexander appears to be a sniveling pussy, a chump who probably meekly handed his milk money to Cleitus when he was threatened at age 8. Farrell’s wide eyes and the constant close-ups on his face certainly capture the cowardice, but that’s all there is to him. Every time he rides into battle, or tries to rally his troops, I found myself wishing that Viggo Mortensen would come give him a pep talk. The Lord of the Rings has a couple of clunkers along its (12 hour) path to Mordor, but the casting and writing are so far superior to this—and most epics, for that matter—that even when a line borders on cheesy, the great Ian McKellan or Mortensen gracefully saves it from eye-rolling purgatory. Here, Farrell and the rest of the cast are completely overmatched by the chicken-scrawl script Stone throws at them, and they contribute mightily to the film’s descent into filmic oblivion.
Many critics have bitched about the constant homoerotic tone that pervades the film. That didn’t bother me in the slightest—from what I know of the time period in Greek culture, everyone was constantly steeped in lust (for men and women), and I have no problem with Stone portraying the world as such. However, for the future of romance everywhere, can we please have fewer moments of Colin batting his lovey-dovey eyes at Jared-poo, and lockiing in a long embrace? I wonder what cologne Mr. Leto uses…mmm…the entire movie’s tone is so corny that potentially moving moments just add to the laugh track, which any given theatre could happily provide—just pop it on and let ‘er rip! The aforementioned homoerotic angle is a great example of Alexander overall—passable concept, F-level execution.
Alexander’s stuffed to the brim with shit, some of it so mind-bogglingly awful that it’s difficult to believe Stone helmed this pile of horse dung. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a more jaw-dropping piece of absurdly obvious symbolism than the eagle that flies around, symbolizing Alexander’s current status and whereabouts. During every key moment, Stone feels compelled to flash a slo-mo of the glorious bird soaring through the sky. *Luckily* for us, he sticks to his guns, and when Alexander finally dies—something I often felt like doing while in the theater—the eagle drops from the heavens, and Jolie lets out a wail of despair. We hear ya, Angelina, we hear ya. The editing in general is poor, something that Stone—even in his weaker films—normally has a strong grasp on. The first battle has its moments, with some impressive long shots accompanying the frenetic battle sequences, but the second is almost all up-close, without any panoramic compositions to balance it out.
Stone apparently loves taking on projects where the historical outcomes are still in dispute—JFK, Nixon, Alexander—and I now wonder if he does so to avoid taking a concrete stance on these subjects. Here, it’s really caught up with him, as his indecisiveness has led to one of 2004’s most embarrassing movies. Instead of a penetrating look at Alexander the Great—I have no qualms with his choice to keep the battles at a minimum—we get a rambling train-wreck. If you have three hours to kill, go fly a shiny kite, or scoop up pigeon droppings for community service. It’ll be time better spent.