Oliver Stone and the persistence of false memories, part 7.

18 Oct

7. Poison in the well.

Race, power, money, politics, greed, sex, violence: Stone’s major subject, it was clear, was the United States. Killers was, in essence, a study in American celebrity gone wrong, a postmodern Bonnie and Clyde. Salvador was American foreign policy, Platoon America at war; Wallstreet was American fiscal policy, JFK America’s political machinery; Born on the Fourth of July was America’s treatment of its veterans, Talk Radio was America’s dark, often hidden, obsessions; U-turn was American small-mindedness and Nixon was America’s political memory.

Any Given Sunday is Stone’s take on American sports. And despite a promising premise—a young hothead becomes an overnight celebrity when the grizzled aged quarterback is injured—the film is a major misfire. The camera swoops and dives and shudders into absurd close-ups. The filmmaking eliminates any subtlety in the acting. The football scenes are garish, weighed down by shaky camera work. The movie is a tacky menagerie of speeches, cynicism, naked male bodies, dipping camera work and sports commentators playing themselves.

It’s smash and grab moviemaking, and it’s terrible.

He has another impressive cast: Jamie Fox, Al Pacino, James Woods, Ann-Margret, Dennis Quaid, Cameron Diaz, LL Cool J, Aaron Ekhart and Jim Brown. Fox somehow manages to carve 0ut a solid performance, and an intriguing character, but the rest sputter and moan and yell and confront without any real conviction. Dennis Quaid, in particular, struggles.

Jamie Fox as a hotheaded youngster full of arrogance and swag.

The story is awash with overwrought clichés. And although some of the off-field antics of the players, the cocaine and steroid abuse, the decadent parties, the violence, is interesting, the film attempts pretty banal arguments about race and money in professional football. We’ve been here before.

Stone’s politics hang like a millstone around his neck. He can’t shoot a straight story. Sunday clinched it. With this, he lost the ability to entertain.

And, so, how did he move from professional football to Alexander the Great? And how did he go so disastrously, gloriously wrong?

Alexander belongs to a small batch of filmmaking disasters. It’s on par with Showgirls, Gigli, The Avengers and Ishtar. It’s the holy grail of bad moviemaking, a gigantic, whopping turd of a film. Holy God, a terrible piece of celluloid, a turkey of the highest order, misguided, confused and unintentionally hilarious. Farrell is wrong as Alexander—he’s too brooding, too Irish—and his lieutenants are all wrong, too. Jared Leto in particular delivers a wretched performance, although he competes with Val Kilmer and Angelina Jolie for worst acting in the film. Anthony Hopkins is weak, and even Christopher Plummer in late-career bloom seems arch and stuffy. The acting—no surprise, really—is uniformly bad.

Colin Farrel with his little boy haircut. Jolie, strangely, plays his mother.

In the spirit of this essay, I rewatched some of Alexander to see if I remembered it wrong. I didn’t. It’s worse than I remembered. The sets are cheap, the costumes cheaper. The intrigues are mishandled. The movie feels bloated yet rushed. Alexander’s seduction by a young male Armenian is laughably handled. And Rosario Dawson has one of the funniest “serious” sex scenes in the history of cinema. (She and Farrell bark and scratch at each other like a pomeranian and a tabby cat.)

None of the characters are finely drawn. They exist as an indistinguishable horde at the edges of the movie, sometimes coming forward to deliver a few mediocre lines before returning to the chorus. The movie feels bungled, cluttered and chatty.

Once again, Stone has bitten off more than he can chew, sliding back and forth in Alexander’s lifetime. There are two or three great movies in Alexander’s invasions of the current Middle East, his drunken murder of one of his closest friends, and his death in the sands of Afghanistan. But none of them are here.

Stone’s worst error, however, is his perception of Alexander. Stone writes him as some sexually confused wunderkind devoted to bringing—I kid you not—literacy to the world. He likes battle, too, but he is motivated by some sense of the liberating freedom of globalization. This is all false, of course. He was a brutish, drunken thug, an early practitioner of germ warfare, and in the end a very bad leader of men. (His soldiers, after ten years of warfare, essentially mutinied.) Like all conquerors, Alexander was interested in fame, money, land, and power, and to portray him any other way is an insult to history. Stone knows better, and it’s intriguing that the director of Salvador, who sided with the little guys, has developed such a romantic view of political and military power.

Alexander reveals why Stone faltered. His ego got in the way. He lost the ability to see the weaknesses in his won writing. He’s drawn to Alexander because he thinks that he and the great general of old are cut from the same cloth.

Well, my little tour of Oliver Stone’s movies has come to an end; I’ve spent too much time in his mediocre company for the past month. I’ve written drafts about his other movies, but I’ve lost interest. Stone lost his edge a long time ago, and his take on George Bush, with its whiny spinelessness, its rushed wretched silliness, is another example of his precipitous decline in ideas. He refuses to take Bush to any real task, but also refuses to humanize him in any believable way. So the audience is left with a mealy-mouthed mama’s boy—which Bush most definitely was not—manipulated by Cheney every step of the way. All of Bush’s failures (or successes, if you’re so inclined) are erased. It’s a rubbing out of any agency in his own life.

And this is Stone’s legacy, I think, as we await yet another new film from him: heavy-handed treatment of serious subjects by a director too cynical to entertain and too afraid to critique. He  lacks the finesse required to interrogate big ideas.

I guess I won’t hold my breath for Savages. Who knows, even if I do see it, the loose synapses in my brain will distort the memory into some twisty knot.

Years later, I might even think it’s good.

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