Alexander the not so great
Like a brilliant general, the period epic film has marched to a string of victories in recent years. Such campaigns as The Lord of the Rings, Gladiator and Master and Commander seized territory at cinemas worldwide and made off with the spoils of huge ticket sales and prestigious awards. But the tide has turned, and engagements like The Alamo and King Arthur turned to routs.
With Alexander, under the command of Oliver Stone, the resurgent genre marches to its Waterloo. At nearly three enervating hours, Stone's trudge through the life of Alexander the Great could put epic films in bad odor for years. You might hope for a film with Platoon's intensity and JFK's excitement at apocryphal history, but Stone leads Alexander into a quagmire as both a spectacle and a character study.
Alexander stumbles with nearly every step, beginning with the stuffy, numbing narration from Anthony Hopkins' aged Ptolemy. As the last survivor of Alexander's inner circle, he expounds on his former general's deeds with numbing, self-important detail, as if Hopkins is being paid by the word.
Flashbacks show Alexander's divided household in Macedonia. His mother, Olympia (campy Angelina Jolie), pampers the young heir and shows her evil nature by stroking live snakes in virtually every scene. Serpents even turn up when his father, one-eyed Philip (Val Kilmer), warns Alexander of the dangers of women. Misogynistic? Probably, but Philip, played by Kilmer like a drunken rock star, doesn't make much of a masculine role model, either.
After Philip's death, Alexander (as an adult played by Colin Farrell) takes command of the Macedonian army and combats the teeming forces of Persia in a lengthy, violent and largely incoherent battle scene. Afterward, he brings the entire Asian continent to heel, marching past the extent of the known world and founding new cities — all named "Alexandria" — along the way, sort of like Wal-Mart franchises. As his troops come upon staggering new vistas, the film touches on a smidgen of wonder that promptly dissipates whenever Alexander stops and a new nation's dancing girls come trotting out.
Stone portrays Alexander as ahead of his time. He perceives his destiny to bring the world literacy, opportunity and freedom (under his rule, of course). The first internationalist, Alexander's willingness to adapt to Asian customs sits poorly with his nationalistic commanders.
Alexander even emerges as ahead of our time, given the film's upfront attitude about his bisexuality. The most explicit sex scene follows his wedding to hot-blooded Roxana (Rosario Dawson), but the film leaves no doubt that he prefers men, especially his longtime companion Hephaestion (Jared Leto). They mostly engage in manly hugging, although Alexander also bestows a public, more-than-friendly kiss on his lithe Persian eunuch.
Credit Alexander for acknowledging such relationships — so why doesn't the script do anything with them? Alexander never favors Hephaestion with a personality, and Leto plays the role as merely a doe-eyed simp. For that matter, the film takes tedious pains to identify Alexander's many right-hand men by name, but gives none of them any distinguishing traits (not even the young Ptolemy). Some humanizing humor would've helped enormously — soldiers have timeless concerns and complaints — but Stone never musters the nerve to crack a joke.
With such flat supporting roles and obscure motivations, Farrell gets precious little to work with. Alexander the Great should gleam with conviction and entitlement, and a few times, Farrell conveys that kind of presence. But frequently his Alexander seems so conflicted — alternately a fragile momma's boy and a paranoid tyrant — that it's amazing he gets anything done, let alone conquers the known world by his death at age 33.
What does Alexander have to offer? Christopher Plummer brings welcome understatement to his single scene as Aristotle. Enemy camels, elephants and costumed extras charge impressively, and the massive metropolis of Babylon gets a memorable, computer-enhanced re-creation. But Stone flubs a chance to pay tribute to one of history's greatest figures, and makes last summer's Troy look like Lawrence of Arabia. History dubbed the Macedonian general Alexander the Great, but audiences will name this film Alexander the ... Eh, Not So Much.