There seems to be no dodging the big, fat neo-epic, a born-again genre with roots in the expensive deployment of muscular-dull movie stars, milling extras, and Cinema-Scope. Today, only the expensive muscular-dull movie stars remain, stranded in a storm of digital backfill. Is a new line of weight lifter Hercules movies very far behind? Of this year’s dusty antiquities (King Arthur, Troy, The Passion of the Christ, Alexander), which has balanced pretension, budget bloat, and profit desperately enough to win the inevitable Academy benediction?
Dispensing with the essentials, let’s immediately say that Oliver Stone’s Alexander—the winner of the just-like-the-awful-Columbus-movie-race-of-1992 sprint against Baz Luhrmann’s Untitled Alexander the Great Project (since scrapped)—is a festival of risible wiggery. The blond mop someone dropped on top of poor Connor Paolo’s head as he catatonically limns the ‘tween-aged Macedonian conqueror is merely the appetizer; together, warriors Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Gary Stretch, and Jared Leto could assemble a Bon Jovi cover outfit when the Asian campaigns are over. Presiding above all is Colin Farrell’s tousled bleach job, his gypsy-moth eyebrows and dark brooding roots suggesting less the eponymous myth figure in his battlefield prime than a Vanity Fair hairdresser ablaze with purpose during a high-pressure Kirsten Dunst cover shoot.
Monty Python has scorched this earth already so well; the recurring title “June 323 B.C.” only does Life of Brian‘s “Judea 33 A.D. . . . Saturday Afternoon . . . About Teatime” one better by not being a gag. Stone seems a vaguely sensible choice, given the Stoney, chop-shop last half-decade of historical pageants, as messily incomprehensible in their montage frenzy as the football games in Any Given Sunday or the taping sessions in Nixon. Alexander‘s major battles are paradigmatically sloppy too, overedited and consumed with the CGI delirium tremens, but in most aspects the man at the wheel here could have been Wolfgang Petersen. Although inexplicable brogues and burrs appear and disappear, and although Stone post-produces the dickens of his movie trying to generate the maximum spit-fog of sound and fury, Alexander manages to be as dull as the Victor Mature films of the 1950s, which barely moved at all.
At least there’s no anachronistic insertion of martial arts into the soldiers’ training regimen. What’s unique about Alexander is its man love. A semi-hidden homo heart has always beat under pre-medieval pop; we’ve all seen the Curtis-Olivier seduction in Spartacus by now, if not the Ben-Hur that Stephen Boyd and uncredited scripter Gore Vidal were fashioning under Charlton Heston’s oblivious nose and with director William Wyler’s scoffing consent. But this Salome drops all of its veils—Aristotle (Christopher Plummer) is forthright in his belief that well-moderated gay fucking will “build a city-state and lift us from our frog pond,” while Alexander’s passionate longtime companionship with first lieutenant Hephaistion (Leto) is the movie’s only love story. Predominant among a few laugh getters is Hephaistion’s silent, bedroom-eyes beseechment for nookie augmented by a slight toss of Anistonian hair, only to be told by his top, “Not on the eve of a battle.” Once Babylon is taken from the Persians (yes, Stone goes for a replay of Intolerance‘s vertical pan, although naturally nothing we see is real), the two diehards lounge around in silk robes with chaliced cocktails like a married couple at the Pines. They even pledge to meet in Hades like Achilles and Patroclus, which is more than Troy had nerve for.
Indeed, if Angelina Jolie, as A’s sorceress-mother Olympias, white pythons entwined around her legs, seems destined for a Maria Montez Lifetime Achievement in Vamp Award, Stone reaches for screaming-mimi drama queenhood. When Alexander, having conquered the Persians, decides to take the peasant girl Roxane (Rosario Dawson) as his wife, a puddle-eyed Leto appears with his mascara running like Dorothy Malone’s to present his own engagement ring. The gay trysts are always implied but l’amour fou is not, especially at Hephaistion’s deathbed, where Leto trembles like Wuthering Heights‘ Cathy, and Stone scores another unintentional hilarity as odyssey-worn Alexander wanders to the window blabbing about the adventures the army will have in the spring while his lover endures lonely death throes in the background.
There’s more—Val Kilmer, as Alexander’s one-eyed lout-dad King Philip, delivers a refreshing draft of conviction, and the dialogue is full of standard-operating-bullshit humdingers (“And you, unbreakable Antigonous!”). The climactic battle with Indian elephants has a certain bizarre friction until you realize to what outlandish degree Stone is digitally shake-and-baking the images, 28 Days Later-style, to make the slow-moving beasts seem more scarifying. But despite all of the fringe benefits, Alexander is a patience tester, clotted with relentless Vangelis hosannas and declamations of glory. Unsurprisingly, it’s a political lemon. The “we’re superior to the Persians” speeches and Alexander’s cant about nation-building for the benefit of the poor “barbarians” might constitute a critique of Alexander or Bush II or both, if they weren’t undermined by the film’s exalting wail of praise. Intercutting regal eagles with Alexander’s profile may suggest Gance’s Napoléon or a recent campaign ad; either way, it’s celebrating bloodshed. Stone seems to identify with the slaughterer general, in whatever era he’s in.