For a movie that features fright-wigs, war elephants, monkeys and man-love, Alexander is surprisingly dull. Everything that could go wrong with it has gone wrong, and yet – it only fitfully reaches maximum hysteria. It may be something to do with Colin Farrell still sort-of believing he was in a credible star vehicle, or maybe because Oliver Stone can’t quite bring himself to launch Alexander into the stratosphere of camp. And it’s a shame, because Alexander could be a really good bad movie. Every scene is poised for kitsch. Is it schadenfreude to wish disaster on a movie? Or would relishing disaster have made Alexander great?
Starting with Anthony Hopkins in a toga (how can this movie go wrong?), Alexander tells the story of Alexander the Great in flashback. Hopkins plays an aged Ptolemy – once a friend to Alexander – looking back on events that shaped the ancient world. Young Alexander is a strong-willed Irish boy (to go by his accent) with a knack for horse-whispering. His father is a drunken tyrant who tells him women are all part-Medea. His mother is sex goddess who grants him an Oedipus complex. Alexander grows up to be “as close to a god” as anything Ptolemy has ever known. To us he seems more a weepy neurotic, but then – we weren’t there. We can only groan.
Colin Farrell looks confused for much of Alexander. He’s keenly aware just how bad he looks with blond hair. But what can he do? He’s gotta lead the Greeks into Asia, or India, or where-ever-the-hell. There’s no time to worry about what’s on his head. He’s playing a man who conquered the known world by the time was 30. How do you play that? Smug? Like Val Kilmer in his younger days? Or heroic! The way Tom Cruise would play it. Farrell settles for conflicted. Like Colin Farrell being asked by play a bi-sexual military genius. Farrell’s Alexander looks like he’d have a pretty major struggle on his hands choosing hair dye, let alone subduing Sogdiana. But part of that must be down to Oliver Stone. As in Nixon, Stone clearly sees parts of himself in this tortured leader. The notion of men haggard by glory has always appealed to Stone’s vanity. When Farrell overcomes mutiny in the ranks with a speech that’s nine parts desperation to one part inspiration (“You men, you break my heart!”), it’s hard not to see parallels with his director.
With Farrell taking up the lion’s share of screen time/responsibility-if-it-all-goes-tits-up, the rest of the cast set about enjoying themselves. Anthony Hopkins, on a paycheque day, plays Ptolemy like Anthony Hopkins in a toga. Val Kilmer plays Alexander’s father like a drunken lout. Angelina Jolie invents an accent. Rosario Dawson gets gloriously naked. Jared Leto applies eyeliner like there was no tomorrow. Christopher Plummer dispenses wisdom about what is and what isn’t ok for men in love. No-one seems to worry if any of the accents match, or if some actors are out-acted by their swords. Battle scenes are directed as a series of random shots of arrows, horses, elephants and severed legs. Ptolemy’s narration is designed to answer who did what to whom and when, but even he can’t explain why we’re told of Val Kilmer’s death scene an hour before we see it.
The movie, in the end, escapes its director. It looks like Stone was aiming for a complex, pan-nationalist, compassionately macho Alexander, but he winds up with Farrell in a black-day-at-the-salon wig, juggling his eyebrows every time Jared Leto walks by. Maybe if every character didn’t explain themselves like a Beginner’s Guide, maybe if Jared Leto had laid off the eyeliner, maybe if Stone hadn’t edited the battle scenes in a tumble-dryer… Maybe. But Alexander is a movie that sounded great over drinks and got made during a hang-over. There’s awkwardness to it. Call if off-season camp. Even the monkeys seem unsure.