As we near Christmas, I am reminded daily of the life and work of Jesus Christ. And as we approach the end of the year, Hollywood is rolling out the big prestige pictures. Among them: Oliver Stone's Alexander. The similarities between Jesus and Alexander are striking, not the least of which being that both had mothers who broke the news to them that their fathers were gods and not the guys that the mothers married. With Jesus, that father was, well, God. Alexander's real dad was supposedly Zeus, or so thought Alex's mother Olympias. So, from the start, both had absentee fathers and mothers who thought their sons were gods. How could they not succeed?
And yet, Alexander fails. It's hard to make good movies about legends. Either they lack humanity or they cheat the myth. Look at Troy, which humanized Achilles beyond consequence (but turned a profit anyway, thanks to Brad Pitt's ripped bod and Orlando Bloom's twinkling eyes). Look closer at Cleopatra. Bloated, self-important, disastrous. But even that 1963 debacle has become a legend in its own right for being first among film fiascos. As of this writing, Alexander's opening-weekend box-office take is a measly $13.4 million (compare this to a budget of $150 million), at sixth place on the chart safely behind the second-week take of SpongeBob SquarePants. I seldom mention a current film's box office in my reviews, but I do now to try and explain why I don't think people want to see this movie, aside from the fact that it's boring. Oh wait, that might be it. It's boring.
The plot, in an extremely small nutshell: Dysfunctional parents King Philip (Val Kilmer) and Olympias (Angelina Jolie) beget young Alexander (Colin Farrell), who, after his father's death and by age 25, conquers most of the known world from Macedonia to Greece to Egypt to Asia. His great love is his childhood pal Hephaistion (Jared Leto), though he marries exotic princess Roxane (Rosario Dawson) as a political gesture. At 32, he dies mysteriously. Murder? Maybe. Regardless, the greatest empire in history falls, and a living legend enters the pantheon.
Why Audiences Will Reject Alexander in three movements:
Alexander the Grating: The film begins, ends, and middles as a history lesson. Forty years after Alexander's death, wizened Ptolemy (stately Anthony Hopkins) rattles off the story of the legend to his scribe Cadmus at the Great Library at Alexandria. And he keeps rattling. This is a big-budget history lesson an expensive History Channel documentary with violence and boobies. While impeccably cast (though the imagination stretches to believe young Jolie as Farrell's mother), Alexander never gallops like a 175-minute movie should and is so full of exposition and dry political maneuvering (which is hard to follow) that the grandeur of Alexander's quests and successes are never exploited to the extent that a son of Zeus deserves.
Alexander the Gaelic: Almost all historical epics have a few things in common. Foremost, they feature prominent British farts in small but important statesman roles (Peter O'Toole in Troy, Richard Harris and Derek Jacobi in Gladiator, Christopher Plummer in Alexander), and they tend to feature myriad dialects. The real Alexander would be speaking Macedonian, not speaking English with a Macedonian accent, so why bother trying to make Farrell sound Macedonian? Ironically, everyone else in the film from Macedonia speaks in Farrell's native Irish brogue, even Kilmer. This is off-putting, especially when Irish slang creeps into the dialogue, and it's hard to differentiate the great warrior king from Farrell, the handsome drunk.
Alexander the Gay: Alexander is commonly acknowledged to have been mostly gay not that this appeared in my high school history book. There's lots of Alexander gushing over Hephaistion in the film, backed by a romantic Vangelis score, but it's all declarations, goo-goo eyes, and glances. I think even the modern frat boy would rather see two guys getting it on than hear them go on and on about their honorable, sexless man-love (though the sex is implied). I appreciate director Stone's willingness to explore it, but he seems to have stalled in a strange compromise I don't think anyone will be happy with the least of which our newly minted Red States.
Long on talk and short on action despite some rough Rosario Dawson sex and some impressive battles (with elephants!) Alexander falls short of greatness. Stone spent half of Alexander's lifetime getting this made. Life is too short to sit through it.