Oliver Stone's latest biopic lumbered into theaters this week, but if Alexander proves anything it's that some life stories defy easy packaging. Stone brings a stellar cast, a lifetime urge to tell this tale, and all the firepower of the latest CGI. But not even an elephant load of money and state of the art effects are enough to get past one small problem: as towering a figure as Alexander is, his story may be too unwieldy to tame.
The subject of Stone's big-budget, multinational production offers any filmmaker a tantalizing array of set pieces. Son of the Macedonian king, Alexander himself was aware of the need for legend and went about building one for himself from the beginning. The tale of young Alexander mastering the wild stallion Buchephalus, and the mumbo-jumbo of his crackpot Mom -- who told him he was descended from Gods -- were components that any PMK rep would die for. And at 20, with the death of his father and his acsension to the throne, the kid was off and running.
What followed was one long march, battle after battle, as Alexander marshaled the Greek army, struck east in a plan outlined but by his father, and steamrollered over anybody who got in his way. As a conqueror, Alexander was bold and benevolent, integrating himself and his men with those he defeated. And by the time he crossed the finish line, 90% of the known world was his.
But while this is all very interesting, what does it mean to the average Joe sitting in the Cineplex? What, bottom line, is Alexander's story about?
As history, it is fascinating. As drama with a beginning, middle and end, you have to stretch to find some meaning to it all. Other than a very interesting ancient Greek Tony Robbins seminar on How To Conquer, what have you really got? And when you compare it to an original story like Gladiator, the movie that made the world safe for both Alexander and Troy this year, neither historical epic matches the made-up efforts of director Ridley Scott. "He was a Soldier who became a Slave who challenged a King." That's what Russell Crowe signed up for.
That's a story.
What Stone chose to do is cheat. Big blocks of Alexander's life are left out and the ones that are left in are colored by anxiety that they're not the right bits. Stone knows we are dull-witted, mind-numbed Enquirer readers. He wants to give us the stuff that will keep us in our seats, and shock us, and maybe even wow. So we get Alexander's alleged bisexuality. And we get war, complete with tons of extras on the plains of Eurasia, and the chopping off of elephant trunks in one bloody battle in the jungles of India.
But despite a $100 million + budget and an international cast, Alexander remains more of a puzzle than ever, and, what's worse, less of a legend. For all his angst-ridden concern about whether he is really a god, Stone's hero has been reduced to Alexander the Not So Hot.
Stone is not helped by the performances he wills from his actors. What, for instance, is he doing letting Anthony Hopkins talk the plot? Whole chunks of Alexander's life are told in this fashion, with Hopkins (as Old Ptolemy) wandering around a lovely marble temple, speaking into the air. And as the title character, Colin Farrell strikes one peculiar note after the next as if he and Stone were unsure of his character arc on any given day. Even cosmetically, Farrell's Alexander makes the Greek conqueror seem fey, his hair streaked blonde like he just stepped out of Umberto's, along with a look of surprise as if he doesn't quite what's happening. Add to this the Babel of accents Stone lets his actors run with. Angelina Jolie (looking way too young to be Farrell's Mum) has what sounds like a Russian accent, while Alexander's men employ the I, Claudius-acceptable British variety.
Point is: we sense Stone losing the struggle. The subject is big, the expanse broad. And instead of sticking to one theme, Was Alexander God or man? Uniter or conqueror? Gay or straight? Stone touches on them all, without ever getting a satisfactory grip on any one.
The story of Alexander may defy telling for a reason. There has been only one version of note before this (starring Richard Burton), and yet it beckons like the Gordian Knot (a legendary tale amazingly left out of Stone's version). But there is also the very real possibility that this might not be a very good tale. Alexander may be great, but is the story of his life? To paraphrase the subject of another Oliver Stone film, is Alexander's life interesting enough to make a movie about?
Well, maybe not.
Like Alexander, Stone set off with all the might of his era on his side, and a burning ambition. And, like his subject, he became mired down by not knowing quite where he was going.
Not a good thing in this or any century.