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May 21, 2004

Troy's plot is skimpier than one of Brad Pitt's leather skirts, but that's not so bad

I think we were all excited about this one. That is, those of us who enjoy a healthy dose of schadenfreude were. When the rumors first began to circulate that Hollywood was adapting The Iliad for the big screen, there were hopes that the result would be an epic for the ages. (Perhaps not quite as many ages as Homer's original, but we can't be too picky.) I even remember discussions about how Homer's use of metaphors and similes might be incorporated in a film. Where Homer compares a warrior's death to the falling of a tree, would the movie show us a few frames of a falling tree to illustrate the image? There may even have been talk of dialogue delivered in meter.

Then we found out that Wolfgang Peterson was directing, and remembered what Air Force One was like. And we heard about Brad Pitt. As I was saying, I think those of us who enjoy schadenfreude were excited about this one.

The good news is that Peterson's latest endeavor, Troy, is bigger and flashier than any copy of The Iliad that I've ever run across. The bad news is that its grandeur doesn't really make up for a general lack of flow, meaning, and good acting. I freely admit that I enjoyed parts of Troy. If you want to see what happens when great balls of fire the size of your mom come tumbling down on a bunch of highly flammable Greek tents, then this is the movie for you. Likewise, if you have ever wondered what it looks like when 100,000 warriors decide to duke it out on the beach, Troy does not disappoint. Similarly, if you lie awake at night wondering if Brad Pitt could possibly get any more metrosexual, just wait until you see his little leather numbers. If you wonder what Helen looked like, however, Troy does disappoint. A thousand ships?! This Helen would be lucky to launch a dingey! But I digress.

The point is, Troy succeeds on these superficial levels but fails in its attempts to delve deeper. A lot of critics have been complaining that Troy lacks emotional resonance, a complaint I don't understand at all. The Iliad is the type of work that unemotionally describes a man's body being divided at the nipples by a spear, as a rock slowly crushes his skull and splatters his brains out. It deals in extremes, in heroes and legends, not in average Joes and their petty dilemmas. It's not like Achilles is just some strong guy, or Helen is just some pretty girl. They are the ultimate superlatives. At least in the copy of The Iliad I read, Achilles doesn't whimper at night over the men he has killed, and Helen doesn't sigh, "I don't want a hero. I want a man I can grow old with." Right. That isn't exactly Homeric.

I say, this is a modern adaptation. We can work with this. It's not like the ancients didn't play with their myths and add new elements to the stories all the time. Perhaps our society needs its own telling of the ancient myth that is more reflective of our ideals. Perhaps that's what critics mean by "emotional resonance." This would explain the way Briseis—a mere commodity to be argued over in the Homeric text—fights with the big boys in Troy. This might also explain why Achilles has nothing but brotherly (or cousinly?) love for Patroclus. These are our modern thoughts superimposed on Homer's characters. Or something like that.

Such new twists on the myth could work, but they would have to be delivered with the same skill that went into creating a computer-generated Trojan skyline. They are not.

For one thing, the acting is bad to the point of distraction. Maybe it's not the actors' fault. I had trouble keeping my laughter down during some of the serious scenes, as bored actors tried to make stale lines sound original, and even noble. Orlando Bloom is especially afflicted with some of the moldiest cheese this side of The Matrix sequels. I do place some blame with the actors, though, because Peter O'Toole—god of the cinema that he is—manages to bring more life to his character's tired lines than the rest of the cast combined. Surely, the screenplay is no help at all, but there were opportunities for the cast to give us some hint that they could have handled the lines better. O'Toole gives the only hint we get.

The acting gets in the way whenever the screenplay tries to add "emotional resonance." It is fine with me that this modern telling wants Helen to be the type of girl who thinks about growing old, but Diane Kruger, the actress playing her, would have to be able to convey a wider range of emotions than her current repertoire of "I want to keep my shirt on" and "I want to take my shirt off."

For another thing, Troy doesn't take the time to set up or resolve these new twists in the ancient plot. For all its 163 minutes of footage, Troy fails to show anything but action, least of all character development. In order to convince me of Achilles's updated motives for loving Patroclus (or reasons for worrying about the men he kills), Troy really needed to commit to more than token dialogue. In order to justify shortening a 10-year epic war into a matter of days, Troy ought to have done something to indicate that this was more than just forgetfulness on the part of the writers. And in order to make me accept a telling of the myth that doesn't include any gods, Troy simply had to provide human characters interesting enough to prevent me from longing to see Athena and Hera wander into the frame. These enormous divergences from Homer are so haphazard that I really wonder why anyone would deviate so far from the text. The modern twists are rushed in between scenes of enormous violence.

As a result, we frequently get 15-second set-ups for 15-minute battle sequences. "Quick!" the director must have screamed, "Come up with a reason for so-and-so to fight what's-his-face!" "OK," replied the screenwriter, "how about undying love for the ugly one? It's not in Homer, but we can show it quickly."

This all adds up to a visual feast that shows its $200 million budget, but not much of anything else. The changes to The Iliad aren't bad in and of themselves, but they are unexplained. I could have enjoyed a deeper reading, but this depth is only implied by Troy. The film skims through its story quickly, arbitrarily adding elements, but pauses in its rush toward the end for even more dazzling battles and visual effects.

So, see this movie if you are entertained by pure action and breath-taking effects. Otherwise, skip it. It isn't satisfying as an updated classic, and it is even less satisfying as a pure adaptation of that classic. As far as schadenfreude goes, there's plenty to laugh at if you are amused by Hollywood blunders. However, don't hold your breath for lines in dactylic hexameter, or similes comparing falling trees with dying warriors. All that a frame-by-frame analysis of this film is likely to reveal is Diane Kruger's nipples, or perhaps Brad Pitt's ass crack.