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Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2005
History gets Stoned
Take a trip back in time with Oliver Stone's "Alexander," to the days of sword-and-sandal movies in which men were men, women were wenches and everyone wore skirts. It's got all the cheesy elements that killed off the genre in the first place: plummy British accents employed to make the dodgy history seem more learned; bearded, hairy-chested men bellowing for wine as they throw a slave-girl -- or, more likely in this film, a slave-boy -- over a table; and some truly inane dialogue: "I was birthed in a sack of hate!" bellows Alexader at one point. Yes, this is your typical Oliver Stone movie, full of guys shouting and then more guys shouting, which is only occasionally relieved by elephants screeching.
Stone's film takes a scrambled narrative approach to the life of Alexander, the Macedonian king who conquered the Middle East by age 30, but the results are less avant-garde than incoherent. It begins with Anthony Hopkins, Mr. Plummy British Accent, playing Ptolemy, looking back on his campaigns with the king. Alexander, he keeps telling his scribes, was a great man -- a setup that's clearly necessary, because once we meet Collin Farrell's Alexander, there's not much evidence of greatness.
Watching Farrell's performance -- all weepy self-pity, insane rage, and drunken arrogance, never mind the unfortunate blond dye-job -- it recalled a comment keyboardist Ray Manzarek made about Stone's "The Doors," which was basically, if the real Jim Morrison had been such a jerk, no one ever would have been in the band with him.
The film cuts back to Alexander's youth, where the camp acting begins in earnest. Angelina Jolie plays Alex's power-hungry mother Olympias with a vampire-queen accent, while Val Kilmer is on open throttle as Alex's father, King Philip, a drunken one-eyed barbarian who Olympias loathes. When Philip takes on another wife, a struggle for succession to the throne looks set to ensue, but Stone inexplicably cuts ahead years in time to the battle of Gaugamela, where Alexander -- now king, somehow -- triumphs over the Persians.
From this point on, the film lurches between Alexander, fighting his way on to India, and Olympias, back in Macedonia, penning him poison letters. The two never meet again, but the point seems to be that Alexander kept marching east to avoid having to go back home and deal with his witch of a mother.
This theme definitely has echoes of the bitter mother-son relationship in Stone's "Born on the Fourth of July," and indeed, in many ways, "Alexander" feels like the meta-Stone flick. Alexander becomes a misunderstood tyrant, wracked with paranoia, just like old Tricky Dick in "Nixon." His claim to be a child of Dionysus, along with his drinking problem, death wish and sexual appetite, is pure Jim Morrison from "The Doors." And the conspiracy-driven assassination of Philip cannot help but recall "J.F.K."
But what's a Stone film without controversy? Much criticism of "Alexander" has been directed at its gay content, with Alexander and his troops helping themselves to male lovers, an aspect that is probably historically correct. And yet Stone never goes further than to have Alexander make puppy-dog eyes at his lifelong comrade Hephaestion (Jared Leto), while his liaison with Babylonian princess Roxanne (Rosario Dawson) gets a full-nude bed-down, where they howl like animals in one of the most embarrassing sex scenes ever.
Stone also tries to lace the film with modern political allusions, which isn't hard when you have a Western army invading Babylon (modern-day Iraq), especially when Darius, king of Persia, is given the beard and serenely dark gaze of Osama bin Laden. Alex preaches with Bush-like certainty that "these people want, need change!" while his advisers counsel that "Babylon is an easier city to enter than she is to leave."
But any point the film is trying to make here is lost amid an endless parade of talking heads spewing junk "wisdom" at Alex: "All your life beware of women"; "You must never confuse your feelings with your duties"; and "the Oriental races are known for their excesses." Add to this some sets that look like Vegas casinos, and a careening, blustery performance by Farrell and you've got more than enough reasons to go out and rent "Aguirre: The Wrath of God" for a far better look at power and madness.