Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan


Posted by CinemaPsycho on November 4, 2004

Directed by Oliver Stone/Screenplay by Stone, Christopher Kyle and Laeta Kalogridis/starring Colin Farrell, Angelina Jolie, Val Kilmer, Anthony Hopkins, Jared Leto, Rosario Dawson/Warner Bros. – Intermedia Films

Oliver Stone is one of my favorite filmmakers of the past two decades. I think he’s made a lot of very good films and a few genuine classics. I always look forward to seeing what he does next, even when I don’t particularly care for the subject matter (as in Any Given Sunday which has its strong points but still didn’t do much for me). So I’m the last person who would bash the guy without reason.

Therefore, I would love to be able to tell you that the critics are wrong about Alexander, that it’s a misunderstood masterpiece, that they “just didn’t get it”. I would love to be able to say that all the bad reviews are just a personal attack on Stone himself, as he’s stated in recent interviews.

But I’d be lying to you. Alexander is just a misguided mess.

I didn’t hate this film so much as I was simply baffled by it. Stone’s artistic choices here are just bizarre. I scarcely know where to begin to describe exactly what’s wrong with this movie, so I’ll just start by saying…damn near everything.

This ambitious biopic/epic of one of the most renowned and controversial figures in history has been a dream project of Stone’s for years, and he obviously has great admiration for his subject. Maybe that’s the problem. He seems to do his best work when he’s pissed off. Never mind the irony of the man behind Platoon, JFK and Born on the Fourth of July crafting a love letter to an unrepentant warmonger. Stone just doesn’t seem to know what to do with the material.

He’s assembled a fine cast here, and left every one of them stranded. Not only does each major character have a different accent, they all seem to be performing in completely different movies. They’re practically speaking different languages. Jolie seems to be in another universe as Alexander’s wicked mother, apparently playing her as a Russian immigrant who’s just received her green card. Kilmer gets to overact wildly, and never seems to get a bead on who exactly his character is. Hopkins is pretty much wasted as the film’s narrator, aka Exposition Guy. His monologues about the state of Greece and “what a great man Alexander was” are generally dull, and often laughable. Given that his younger counterpart plays such a minor role in the events on screen, I’m curious about why we even needed his perspective in the first place.

I think Farrell’s a strong actor, but his performance in the title role is just as miscalculated as the rest of the movie. His Alexander comes off more like a petulant child than a great leader. We’re constantly told what a legend he is, but nothing we see him do seems to back that up. He just decides to go conquer the world, simply because he can, and his followers just kinda show up. We never get a sense of why anyone would so willingly follow him into battle. Why Stone and others find him so fascinating is left a complete mystery. He seems like a guy who goes to war just to get as far away from his crazy parents as possible. That’s understandable, but certainly not admirable.

(Not to get too political here, but Farrell’s Alexander often bears an eerie resemblance to a certain weak-chinned, smirking current leader of the free world. Stone has said that he meant no parallels to modern politics, and I don’t doubt him on that, but I’ll be damned if Farrell doesn’t look like a dead ringer for the guy here, at least from the forehead down. This could be purely coincidental, but even so, it’s awfully weird.)

But you can’t blame the actors for any of this, when Stone clearly doesn’t seem to have any idea what he’s shooting for here. He obviously wants us to identify with Alexander, yet he gives us no reason to care about the man. We’re kept at such a distance from him that we’re never roused by his victories. Even when he delivers his “big speech” to his troops before a major battle, Stone inexplicably cuts away to a literal birds-eye view of the battleground and drowns out the dialogue. A later scene seems to vaguely explain this, but it’s still a bizarre move to make just at the point where we should be developing a rooting interest in Alex and getting an idea of how he inspired his soldiers.

We’re also never really given a solid motivation for doing what he does. After all, the man is conquering nations and committing massacres – it’s a bit difficult to sympathize with Alex if we don’t know why he’s doing it. First we’re told he has a “vision” for uniting the world under one kingdom (yeah, good luck with that). Then it’s to prove himself to his manipulating mother and uncaring stepfather. Then it’s to establish his place in history and whatnot. Maybe it’s all of those things. Maybe it’s none of them. Stone just seems to give up trying to convince us to care at some point, and what we’re left with is a portrait of a man who we never quite understand. Alex becomes a hollow figure at the center of his own story. He’s a cipher, a void, and we’re left to speculate to fill in the blanks. That doesn’t make for a satisfying biopic.

It doesn’t help that the movie’s incoherent stop-and-start structure undermines any sense of narrative drive or cohesive statement. Just when you think Stone’s finally starting to get somewhere with this, he grinds the movie to a halt and goes off in some other direction. Every scene seems to take place “Eight Years Later” than the last. It’s like, “well, first he did this…then 8 years later he did this…then a couple of years later this happened…” Didn’t anything interesting happen in between these story points? We’re here to see this man’s life story, not the highlights of his resume. That we can get out of any history book. Then there’s a whole sequence that seems to have been shoved into the wrong reel. It’s a long flashback that occurs towards the end, taking us out of the battle scenes and back to his life in Greece, “Eight Years Before”. All of this would’ve worked much better in chronological order, and might’ve helped us give a rat’s ass about the guy. Instead we’re given crucial information at a point where we just don’t care anymore.

A lot has been said about the “gay content” of the film. Personally, I think it’s admirable that Stone chose not to ignore the bisexuality that was considered “normal” in that culture and time period, and that Farrell was brave enough to play the role with that in mind. What’s not so admirable is that Stone handles the subject with all the subtle dignity of a Will & Grace episode. There’s a ludicrous scene that takes place in a conquered harem, where a male servant happens to catch Alex’s eye. It’s done with such clumsy obviousness that you half expect Stone to yell out from behind the camera, “Look…he’s in a room full of hot women…and he’s checking out a DUDE!!! Get it? Get it?”

Yes, Oliver, we get it. Put down the sledgehammer.

That’s hardly the only example, just one of the most bizarre. Never mind the fact that if Alex were truly bisexual, he’d be checking out the ladies too. The film is full of odd little references and asides like that, moments where you can’t help but think, “OK, was that meant to be a joke? Or was he trying to be serious and failed miserably?” I can’t speak for any gay moviegoers out there, but I have to imagine that they’ll get quite a chuckle out of the hysterical efforts Stone makes to deal with this subject without…actually dealing with it. It’s not that he didn’t have the freedom to tackle it head-on – it’s that he thinks that’s exactly what he’s doing. That’s the funny part. (I won’t even go into things like the “fade to pink” that take place near the end. Even if you take the “gay context” out of the equation, it just looks stupid and awful, like they shot the scene through a coat of Pepto-Bismol.) Alex’s obvious affection for his buddy Hephastion, played by an extremely effeminate Jared Leto, might actually have been touching and effective – that is, if we actually cared about any of the characters in the film.

Overall, Alexander is pretty much a disaster on every level. There’s very little that actually works in it. Yet it’s not unwatchable or anything – it’s actually fascinating in a way to see a movie fly so completely off the rails and have such confidence in doing so. Love it or hate it, you can’t call this simple hackwork. It’s the kind of ambitious failure that only a great director can come up with, like Spielberg’s 1941 (which I actually have a little affection for) or DePalma’s Bonfire of the Vanities (which I don’t). In a perverse way, I kind of admire it for its resolute, unwavering belief in its own wrongness.

But can I recommend it? Hell no. However, I will look forward to Oliver’s next film, whatever and whenever that may be. And until then, Alexander will be picked apart by both his fans, and by lovers of bad cinema everywhere. Say what you will about Stone – he never does anything halfway.

* 1/2 (1 1/2 stars) 11/28/04


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