Call Him Al

An epic story turns human -- and fallible -- in Oliver Stone's Alexander

Nov 24, 2004 at 4:00 am
If you've ever gone line-dancing with a gaggle of amputees on crank and hallucinogens, you know something of the feeling engendered by viewing Alexander. This broad, bold and ambitious film by Oliver Stone presents itself as a fairly straightforward endeavor, but its rhythms quickly go strange while its participants hobble and flail about, remarkably out of synch yet hell-bent on not falling down, no matter what, for nearly three hours. The movie frequently scratches at grandiosity, but its heart has much more to do with some kooky form of performance-art-as-rehab. Or something like that.

In the lead role is Colin Farrell, portraying the youthful Macedonian whose destiny as Alexander the Great involves conquering the known world in a mini-skirt while his peroxide locks gradually morph from a pert John Denver 'do (Greece) to Kajagoogoo extravagance (Persia) to a repulsive Kid Rock mullet (Syria). Early on, young Alexander (played by Connor Paolo) turns to Aristotle (Christopher Plummer) amid some pretty ruins -- ruins? in 300 B.C.? -- to learn the philosophies of Greek superiority and territorial conquest, as illustrated via convenient maps.

Holy cow, the maps! Whether they're composed of tiles, pebbles or colored corn chips -- this movie is chock-a-block with ostentatious cartography. Even Anthony Hopkins, as the elder Ptolemy, goes map-crazy while waddling about in Yoda mode, providing rudimentary narration and a scholarly framing device along the lines of Classics for Dummies. (More amusing, and sad, is how appropriately this fits the American multiplex audience. Dubya may love this movie, apart from that line about "contempt for a world far older than our own.")

The action involves Alexander growing up and claiming his destiny, which begins with a clunky metaphor as he rides an unridable horse. By this point you'll notice that the score (composed and performed by Vangelis) turns bombastic, beautiful and obtuse with a randomness befitting the rest of the film. Al does not notice this, however, since he's too busy being trained in wrestling (with très-PC loincloths) by a barking Brian Blessed and instructed in the ways of mythology by his fashionably one-eyed father King Philip (Val Kilmer), a shouter who dumps all sorts of paranoid-delusional claptrap into Al's head regarding the deviousness of women.

The main woman in Alexander's life is, of course, his nutso mother, Queen Olympias (Angelina Jolie), a new-money barbarian who rolls around with poisonous snakes when she's not letting fly with explosive histrionics only a girl from Beverly Hills could muster. Perhaps a sorceress, she ages about two minutes while little Al grows up into Farrell, which is weird but barely noticeable amid all the shrieking and mewling of her dialogue, delivered in Bela Lugosi's accent. "Een you leeves de light of de vorld," she informs impressionable Al. No pressure there. You want a megalomaniac son? You start with parents like these.

The movie doesn't hang on this point too much, but it does address the cyclical nature of neuroses, as Alexander takes over most of the known world (known to the Greeks, anyway) by age 25 and is even elected Pharaoh. He and his crafty phalanxes beat the stylish Persians into submission at Gaugamela, then capture the magnificent city of Babylon (a stunning work of art by designer Jan Roelfs). The place is filled with dancing harlots -- so naturally Al beds a freshly waxed slave boy.

In this homoerotic context, Alexander preposterously hedges. Hints abound, especially as he gazes protractedly into the glazed eyes of his buddy Hephaestion (Jared Leto). Everyone's favorite metrosexual, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, even meanders through with intent to tempt. Yet the movie feels incomplete, as if Stone shot gay scenes and then, possibly at the behest of marketing bigwigs, removed them for wider appeal. After the prerelease controversy stirred by Alexander's dalliances, the movie proves peculiarly tame.

Well, except for the big Rosario Dawson sex scene, anyway. The thousands of soldiers, clanging swords, zooming arrows and charging elephants pale in comparison to Dawson's unleashed breasts. This rough-and-tumble romp between the ruler and his long-awaited slave-queen is absurdly gratuitous, but at least it digs into some soul ("Tell me you aren't a pale reflection of my mother's heart," Al pleads) and introduces some funkiness into the chaos. Stone's JFK got weirder, but this ain't bad.

If only the rest of the movie were equally outrageous. The creators of Alexander set out to make an epic, and they can't be faulted for the many elements that succeed on this scale; what's unfortunate is that they don't quite deliver a camp classic.