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Angelina Jolie nuzzles snakes and hisses warnings to her son about his father. An inexplicably blond Colin Farrell smooches a Persian eunuch, marries a Bactrian princess, and declares eternal love to a boyhood pal. Macedonian troops crumple before an elephant-led attack, their leader falls, and the world goes bright red. And in the audience, veterans of JFK, The Doors, and Platoon may well ask, Is that all there is?
Four years and $155 million in the making, Alexander is an overreaching snooze, a film that seems designed mostly to mend director and co-writer Oliver Stone’s reputation with upholders of historical accuracy. Not only did the director enlist Oxford University historian Robin Lane Fox, one of Alexander the Great’s biographers, to consult on the numerous rewrites, but he also had Lane Fox pen The Making of Alexander, a peculiar “official guide” that combines serious historical analysis with on-location gossip. Amid the book’s full-color publicity stills, Lane Fox repeatedly expresses his admiration for Stone’s knowledge of the historical sources and offers his blessings for any deviations in the cause of narrative efficiency.
Alexander is even narrated by a historian, albeit one who was witness to many of the events he recounts. Forty years after Alexander’s death, Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins) dictates his account of the conqueror to a scribe, thus establishing a sort of apostolic succession that leads all the way to Stone and co-scripters Christopher Kyle and Laeta Kalogridis. Ptolemy did write a life of Alexander, although it’s long been lost; contemporary historians rely on Arrian and Plutarch, who wrote their accounts some three centuries after Alexander conquered the Middle East, Egypt, Persia, and a bit of India. Most of the basic facts of the conqueror’s 32-year life are undisputed, but his character is largely a mystery—one that this film can’t begin to solve.
It’s also Ptolemy who introduces a thesis that Stone quickly misplaces: Alexander created civilization as we know it, an empire “of the mind,” the old man explains. “Before him, there were tribes.” Yet Alexander’s supposed break with older, less cosmopolitan outlooks gets more play in The Making of Alexander than in the film itself. Stone, it seems, is most concerned with his perpetual themes of sex, gore, shamanism, and the relationship between radical sons and reactionary fathers. To the last dynamic, he adds a radical mother: Olympias (Jolie), who advises her son to befriend serpents, act boldly, and distrust his one-eyed father, Philip (Val Kilmer). “Weee-min are the only ones who know Dionysus,” Olympias tells the boy in her mysterious, perhaps Transylvanian accent.
Young Alexander (Connor Paolo) learns rather more rational (though not necessarily factual) lessons from Aristotle (Christopher Plummer), and struggles to best longtime friend Hephaestion (Patrick Carroll) at wrestling. Philip takes his son into a dark cavern, where the frescoes become a kind of magic-lantern show, offering capsule biographies of the mythic Greek heroes whose exploits Alexander will best. “Beware of women,” Dad warns, portending nothing in particular. Eight years later, with his blond bangs suggesting a grown-up Dennis the Menace, the adult Alexander (Farrell) masters faithful steed Bucephalus. Soon, Philip has been murdered, and Stone jumps to the preliminaries for the Battle of Gaugamela, where Alexander is to defeat Persian King Darius and begin the conquest of the known world.
The bulk of the movie transpires between Gaugamela and a less historical showdown in India that ends Alexander’s march to the East. Both clashes are a bit confusing, although the latter, ironically, looks more familiar because it resembles the elephant-heavy brawls in recent Thai battle epics. (The Indian scenes were actually shot in Thailand; the rest of the exteriors were done in Morocco.) Worse, from the director of the precedent-setting Platoon, the combat sequences seem stolid: Spurting blood, quick cuts, and contrasting visual styles are now routine, and Alexander never makes them appear anything more.
A few psychedelic flourishes aside, in fact, Alexander is quite similar to Wolfgang Petersen’s old-fashioned Troy. Each movie revolves around a miscast pretty-boy and endows its Greeks with Irish accents (although with some Welsh tones in the former and some Scottish ones in the latter). Though more vivid—and, of course, more computer-generated—than ’50s sword-and-sandal flicks, both films employ such musty touches as matte-painting backgrounds and lifeless crowd scenes. Unlike Troy, however, Alexander doesn’t deny the Greek warriors’ bisexual culture, showing Alexander’s attraction to the grown-up Hephaestion (Jared Leto) and the eunuch Bagoas (Francisco Bosch). But after some sex-and-violence trims, reportedly made to appease distributor Warner Bros., Alex’s principal erotic encounter is with Bactrian bride Roxane (Josie and the Pussycats bassist Rosario Dawson).
Stone hit the wall a decade ago with Natural Born Killers, which gave a Quentin Tarantino script the abstract, free-associative vibe of a Derek Jarman film. The director has been in retreat ever since, recycling familiar material in movies that are equal parts macho and retro. In Alexander, the result is nearly three hours of cinematic bluster—an eagle that soars with the hero’s spirit, a score by Chariots of Fire hack Vangelis—with only the vaguest of philosophical grounding. Indeed, to explain his interest in Alexander, Stone can offer only platitudes about how the Macedonian’s empire brought “change” and “freedom”—ideas that even movie-biz neophyte Lane Fox noticed were lifted from Stone’s very own Wall Street.
In such films as Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, German director Werner Herzog’s passion to tell impossible stories was mirrored in his protagonists’ quests to perform undoable deeds. During the making of the latter, Herzog was followed by filmmaker Les Blank; the result was a sort of documentary epic, Burden of Dreams, that further blurred the distinction between visionary filmmaker and crazed conquistador. Now comes Incident at Loch Ness, with another camera crew tracking Herzog on another mad pursuit. It’s impossible to say more without ruining the effect, so Herzog buffs who don’t already know what Incident at Loch Ness is all about should stop reading now.
For everyone else, here’s an essential clue: director Zak Penn’s writer credit. Loch Ness, which purports to be the record of a failed Herzog documentary, is actually a work of satirical fiction. Penn, who has script or story credits on such mainstream movies as Inspector Gadget and X2, here introduces himself as a budding producer who’s agreed to underwrite Herzog’s cinematic consideration of the fabled Scottish creature known as Nessie. Soon after Penn, Herzog, and their crew arrive in Scotland, however, it becomes clear that producer and director are working at cross purposes.
The essence of the plot is the growing conflict between Penn, who portrays himself as the worst sort of duplicitous Hollywood hack, and Herzog, who portrays himself as Werner Herzog. Viewers who have never seen Herzog in documentaries by or about him—in addition to Burden of Dreams, key works are Lessons in Darkness and My Best Fiend—probably won’t get the joke, but the director-as-actor is impressively himself. Even in increasingly absurd situations, Herzog never breaks character. He delivers lines that seem entirely credible at the time, perhaps because they’re intercut with moments that really do come from his personal repertoire of idiosyncrasies. (I’ve met Herzog only once, but he was quick to show me his microscopically handwritten Fitzcarraldo journals, just as he does to the “documentary” crew in this movie.) Only gradually does it become clear that Herzog is playing a deadpan parody of himself.
In addition to demonstrating that the sometimes bombastic Herzog is a remarkably good sport, this performance is the movie’s principal asset. Incident at Loch Ness attempts to keep a straight face as its narrative becomes increasingly implausible—a strategy that fails. What could have been a modest spoof about the gap between Hollywood hokum and Herzog’s “ecstatic truth” becomes overloaded with mock-dramatic content. Indeed, the aftertaste is more Gadget than Aguirre—suggesting that writer-director Penn has more in common with fictional producer Penn than he knows.CP