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At Least We Know Why It’s Just Called ‘Alexander’

by Jeremy Mathews
A passionate moment before battle.  As grows Alexander's hair, so grows the level of tedium in this sprawling epic.

Warner Bros.
Directed by Oliver Stone
Written by Oliver Stone, Christopher Kyle and Laeta Kalogridis
Produced by Moritz Borman, Jon Kilik, Thomas Schühly, Iain Smith and Oliver Stone
Starring Colin Farrell, Angelina Jolie, Jared Leto, Val Killmer, Rosario Dawson, Anthony Hopkins, Connor Paolo, Patrick Carroll, Christopher Plummera and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers
Rated R

(out of four)

Nothing much happens in the first hour of “Alexander.” There’s a long depiction of Alexander the Great’s childhood, full of talk of glory and sacrifice and the dangerous fate of heroes. It’s easy for a hopeful viewer to imagine this nonstop boredom is a setup to a grand conclusion. But as the next hour begins and the Macedonian ruler has come to power and proceeds to conquer, it becomes clear that Oliver Stone’s attempted grand epic is nothing but three hours of unfocused meandering.

The movie is bad beyond all explanation. You have to see it for yourself to understand how flat such an expensive, long-toiled-over movie can be. Many talented and sincere people worked on it, yet none of them created any memorable moments—unless they’re memorably bad. The dialogue, direction and acting are all completely miscalculated. And the scenes put together create no cohesive whole except for a meditation on sitting in a movie theater for all eternity.

Colin Farrell, who up to this point had a pretty strong record on his performances, plays Alexander from his late teens to his young death at almost 33 years old. His life is remembered by his successor as the new ruler of Babylon and Pharoah of Egypt, Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins), who dictates the story to some shirtless male scribes and must be toning it down for the sake of history. Throughout the battles and soap opera laments, Stone’s portrayal is surprisingly timid for the usually bold director. Afraid of homosexual behavior, “Alexander” suffers from a lack of clarity in the ruler’s relationships with men, and a lack of spark between the women with whom Alexander tries to conceive a child, most notably Rosario Dawson.

The love of his life is Hephaistian, who as a child beats young Alexander in wrestling because he won’t be dishonest and let him win. (Ptolemy says something along the lines of the only battle Alexander lost was with Hephaistian’s thighs.) This trust follows them through Alexander’s life and marriages, and while Alexander has feelings for women, he never meets another person with the same connection he has with Hephaistian.

Angelina Jolie plays Alexander’s mother Olympias, who charms snakes but drives her son and husband, King Philip (Val Kilmer) crazy. Some call her a barbarian from the cult of Dionysus, although Zeus is said to be Alexander’s father. She’s a paranoid control freak who goes through various means to make sure that her son becomes king, and after he flees to avoid seeing her, still sends him letters detailing how everyone may be plotting against him. She encourages a rift between him and King Philip, whom she despises, I guess because he’s not as good as Zeus in bed. A premature murder leads to Alexander’s ambitious reign.

One of the oddest structural decisions was the choice to skip the murder of Philip and then flash back to it an hour into the movie. With many other things that sound more interesting than the scenes that made it into the movie, the narrator brushes over Philip's murder, creating a disjointed feeling as the film skips from a fight between father and son to the son as king and ready for battle. When it finally gets back to it, the film has already verified the sneaking suspicion that it isn’t worth watching. I hoped that the flashback would be a bookend to the movie, but alas, it goes back to the main story for another hour of tedium.

Farrell’s performance consists of alternations between looking sad and scared—with a comedically wide-open mouth in one battle—and acting bold. He and Stone fail to create a real sense of Alexander as a person—what made him a great leader, how he was flawed. I guess we’re supposed to walk away believing he was the greatest Alexander (predating Graham Bell, anyway) because he dreamt of grand things, and ignore the many people who died so he could rule the world, an issue the film raises then discards. But Stone is more thoughtful than that, and perhaps he never could come up with a solid portrait of the man.

The battle scenes are as bad as the characterizations. While a veteran director like Stone obviously knows the basic principles of editing and directing, he abandons them in an attempt to show the chaos of battle. We get motion blurs of trees and people running around. Yet however chaotic, the soldiers would still know in what direction they were running, a luxury the audience doesn’t have. Stone also resorts to pseudo-extraordinary ariel shots of the battle, with dusty sand floating overhead to obscure any useful visual information.

Perhaps Stone was attempting to show how weary Alexander’s soldiers were about this man they were following by making a film that no one can get behind. He may have thought he was making a historic epic, but he ended up with a disaster movie.

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