Over the past two weeks, I have received numerous mass e-mails from Macedonian activists who are “concerned” over Oliver Stone’s Alexander. These e-mails are all the same. They begin with an earnest plea for the critic to consider historical fact when viewing the film and to write a review that takes “the Macedonian perspective” into account. Then they go into long dissertations about “fact vs. myth.” I haven’t read any of these messages beyond the opening plea for one simple reason: my job is to review the movie, not the history.
It would be wise for me to point out two things right now: 1.) I’m a big, big Oliver Stone fan; and 2.) Alexander may possibly be the most boring movie I’ve ever seen. Forget the specious history; the real tragedy here is that Stone, who hasn’t made a theatrical movie in five years, returns with a film that runs almost completely counter to what we expect from An Oliver Stone Film (aside, of course, from his ability to be controversial – a trait I admire greatly in the filmmaker).
Colin Farrell plays Macedonia’s Alexander the Great in this sprawling…no, make that rambling epic. Val Kilmer portrays his gregarious father Philip, whose disapproval helps spark Alexander’s ambition. Angelina Jolie portrays his mother, Olympias, who wants her son to produce an heir for political reasons as much as personal ones.
Alexander has his own ideas, including conquering Persia and India, among other places. With his loyal army by his side, Alexander claims many lands. He seems most impressed by Babylon, with its endless opulence. The movie also explores his romances with both sexes. Alexander marries princess Roxane after conquering her native land. He also carries on a liaison with his longtime friend Hephaistion (Jared Leto). The story ends with Alexander’s death at age 32, having torn through 22,000 miles in eight years.
The major flaw with Alexander is the screenplay – usually one of Stone’s strong points. It’s clear that the director and his co-writers did extensive research on the subject, but instead of crafting that information into a compelling cinematic story, they just spew it out like a bad college lecture. Listening to this movie is like having someone read to you from a textbook. Lots of names and locations get tossed about, plenty of strategies are proposed by the characters. After a while, it starts to become a drone. Have you ever watched one of those Charlie Brown cartoons on TV? If so, you doubtlessly recall how the voice of the teacher was never distinct; it was only a monotonous wah wah wah sound. Well that’s how the dialogue in this movie starts to sound after a while. Seriously. It starts to go in one ear and out the other.
It does not help matters that characterization is almost non-existent. We never know who Alexander is, what drives him, what inspires him. By all appearances he is intensely determined, yet we never really feel why so many would follow him from one battle to the next. Surely a man who conquered 90% of the known world by the time he was 25 has a lot to make him interesting. You’d never know it from the film.
The other characters are equally bland, or worse. Take the character of Roxane. In a voiceover, the narrator, Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins), says that Alexander’s marriage to Roxane was the most mysterious choice he ever made. No one knows why he chose to marry Roxane. Well, if the movie can’t even be bothered to guess why he married her, then what’s the point of even including the character? It’s just a detour down a dead end. There are many others just like it.
Not even the acting makes a difference. Most of the cast (excluding Hopkins) is guilty of overacting. This is a common trap in modern historical epics. Actors have to juggle accents and clumsy old-world dialogue; in the process, the emoting gets ratcheted up. There are also a number of acting anomalies in the picture, such as why the 29-year old Angelina Jolie is playing the mother of 28-year old Colin Farrell. Or why the Macedonian legend speaks with an Irish brogue.
I have a confession to make: I gave up on this movie. By the time the second hour was up, I realized that I was no longer paying attention. I was sitting in my seat, daydreaming about a hundred other things. Even my posture changed; I was slouching in my seat, resting my head back. As the third hour began, I forced myself to sit up straight and focus. This lasted for all of five minutes. Then the droning started again. I realize that this might sound unprofessional for a movie critic to say. However, I bring it up only as evidence that Alexander is a chore to sit through. The simple truth is that if your movie is going to be three hours long, you must earn the right to have that length. The film must be nothing short of riveting. (For example, do you remember one single minute when you were bored by The Lord of the Rings? Me neither. Alexander could easily have been an hour shorter, with no discernable loss. I mean, for a guy who conquered so many lands, there’s not a lot of action in this film. It’s mostly talk, talk, and more talk. Would you believe that in a three-hour movie there are only two battle sequences?
You will not find many people who admire the films of Oliver Stone more than I. Even at his worst (i.e. here) he’s a fascinating director who takes genuine risks and avoids ever playing it safe. That’s part of what made Alexander so painful for me: it was a major misstep from someone I greatly respect. Stone’s movies are usually so alive - full of energy and anger and ideas. This one, in contrast, is dead. There’s no spark, no passion here…until the last half hour, when Alexander enters India and launches a bloody battle that includes marauding elephants. Suddenly Alexander comes alive with the things we expect from An Oliver Stone Film: visual boldness, Freudian imagery, and the rush of a creator so alive with ideas that he can barely squeeze them onto the screen fast enough.
Those last 30 minutes represent what Alexander should have been. Here’s hoping that Stone doesn’t wait another five years to make a movie – and that he experiences a serious return to form.
( 1/2 out of four)
Alexander is rated R for violence and some sexuality/nudity. The running time is 2 hours and 55 minutes.
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