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Napoleon, an epic…comedy.

If you’re looking for a stirring historical epic about the famed French emperor, this is not your movie.

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Ridley Scott’s latest historical epic Napoleon is less historical and more aspirational? I’ll be honest, as a big fan of the legendary Emperor of France, I went into this movie excited to see my man conquer the big screen. Unfortunately, what I got was another movie that proves Joaquin Phoenix can’t play anyone but himself.

But, before I get into my rant, let’s cover the few positive things about the film. First and foremost, though highly inaccurate, the battle scenes are easily the best things in this movie. The sheer scope, detail, and emotion of these moments truly prove what this epic could have been. It’s almost sad really, because it’s a glimpse at greatness in a sea of subpar.

My favorite, by far, is the battle that ends with Napoleon tricking his enemy onto a frozen lake and then shooting cannonballs to break the ice beneath them (factually inaccurate, like most of the movie). I just sat there in awe of how amazing Napoleon was, and also how ruthless in war. That’s what you want, though: someone who puts their emotions aside and beats their enemy down in body, spirit, and mind. There’s a line in the movie where a British general is talking to the king of Austria (I think; I honestly ignored a lot of the details since the movie clearly didn’t care about them either), and he describes Napoleon as brutal. How boss is that?

Secondly, gotta give props to my girl Vanessa Kirby for playing Napoleon’s embattled first wife Josephine. Now, I’ve seen Kirby in The Fast and the Furious movies, I’ve seen her in The Crown, girl’s got range, and I love her for it. But here? Oof, she does what she can, I imagine, but like Phoenix, there are a number of times where I feel she breaks character and Scott simply doesn’t care. Mostly, I’m giving her more credit than she’s due because I really don’t like Phoenix as an actor in general. Kirby has proven herself capable of fantastic range and emotional depth, and here she even gets to give her inner Posh Spice a spin (that scowl!), while Phoenix never feels like he plays anything other than a quirky man-baby with delusions of grandeur.

The third, and final plus side is the costuming and set design. For as stupid as this movie is allowed to be at times, the costumes and set design do not shirk their responsibilities, becoming the only elements that remind the audience that this is supposed to be a serious movie, guys! I feel a little bad, as the acting and writing do not live up to the promise the costumes and set design speak of.

That’s about all the praise I can give this film. Actually, there is one other point I can give to this movie that’s a bit of a double-edged sword. It is hilarious. Honestly, unexpectedly, and at times painfully, funny. From Napoleon’s horse getting its chest caved in by a cannonball to the pissy catfights between the emperor and his wife, this movie is ripe with truly random moments of hilarity. There’s a line during one of the contentious dinners between Napoleon and Josephine where she calls him fat and he, for real, responds, “Destiny has brought me this lamb chop!”. Like…seriously??? It felt like an outtake that had somehow snuck its way into the finished product. There are plenty of these moments throughout the film where I couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity and I wasn’t sure if that was on purpose or not. I kind of hope not, because if it was, then what exactly is this movie supposed to be? What is the tone Scott was going for?

And, speaking of the director, allow me to bring up the main issue that plagued this movie: a man who should retire. Much like his subject matter, Scott is past his prime but too stubborn to admit it. I’ve seen Gladiator; it was an amazing movie with a simple plot but great acting, direction, and casting. This? This is a fart. Mind you, I’m not picking on Scott either. I recently saw Killers of the Flower Moon, and I would say the same to Martin Scorsese. Killers is a looooooooong movie, but to his credit, it doesn’t feel as long as it is; however, it is weirdly structured. The movie jumps around a lot, very similar to Napoleon in that sense, but both movies have something else in common: they are beautiful. As I’m a believer in constructive criticism, I would suggest that these guys give up directing and instead become cinematographers. While the staging, direction, and pacing of their movies can be questionable at times, the imagery is not.

One of my biggest complaints is Phoenix, who, for most of this movie, felt like he’d messed up his line or let loose some odd ad-lib or just dropped out of character entirely (that feeling was consistent), seeming to admire the period piece he’d been cast in like some You-Tube prankster. The instances of his inner monologue making it to the screen ruined sincere moments. Frankly, I don’t think Kirby had to do much acting to look as annoyed as she did.

Also, what the hell was up with that weird toxic relationship? Kirby’s Josephine appears largely disinterested in Napoleon for practically all of it. She dances with him in a detached way, seduces him in a detached way, and fights for their relationship in a — you guessed it — detached way! In fact, one of the only times we see her come to life feels like an accident. During the divorce scene, Josephine can’t stop laughing, but it doesn’t fit the scene too well. I mean, up until that point, she’d understood the idea that she had to get a divorce since she wasn’t making any heirs, but then the moment comes, and she’s just laughing at the absurdity. It genuinely felt like Kirby was laughing at having to act next to a guy like Phoenix.

There’s a lot to hate about this movie. The strange pacing that doesn’t seem to give a shit about its subject so much as battles both on the field and in his personal relationship. The Oppenheimer level of awkward sex. The historical inaccuracies that rob the subject of his true accomplishments and boils him down to all the worst stereotypes ever made of him. The poor use of score which forces the audience to wonder if the director fell asleep while editing it, because there are some jolly musical backups to what should be somber scenes. And of course, the acting, writing, and directing. But, to be honest, as much as I’ve ranted against this movie, I actually didn’t hate it.

Overall, Napoleon’s absurd humorous undercurrent saves it from being a complete dud. So long as you can embrace the fact that no one making this movie actually cared about it, save for the cinematographer, costume designer, and set designer, you can just go with the flow. Enjoy it as another bullshit Joaquin Phoenix performance dressed up as an Oscars vehicle. I have no doubt he and Kirby will get nominated for their work here, if only because they played dress up as two well-known historical figures, but they really shouldn’t win. Napoleon should not be Oscar bait for anything other than score, costumes, set design, and cinematography (essentially, any technical award). This is, in my humble opinion, the kind of “historical epic” Tommy Wiseau would have churned out. Ok… this is easily better than anything he ever made, so congrats Ridley Scott, you edged out a guy several leagues below you.

The thing is, if Scott had simply made a historical epic set in France during Napoleon’s time and created a Napoleon proxy character instead of focusing on actual Napoleon, I believe this movie would have been received a lot better. Because, in all honesty, for as weirdly funny as moments in the film are, it isn’t without charm. The battle scenes are epic, the drama is delicious if not over the top, and without tying itself to a being a movie about Napoleon, it could have easily soared as a borderline satirical romp through the ridiculousness of French aristocracy/royalty, the ambitions of one man, and a marriage decidedly on the rocks. But, by labeling the movie “Napoleon”, it loses that freedom and gets a harsher criticism than I think is deserved.

If I want to really stretch and give Scott some kind of “genius” credit, I would wager a guess that this is in reality a movie about Trump. Here’s a man who definitely didn’t come from nothing, and certainly didn’t conquer everything, but in this movie he is touted as a battle genius, made emperor, and gets a hot detached wife. If that’s not Trump, I don’t know who is (granted, this would be a warning type of movie, but still). Even the way Phoenix plays Napoleon feels like a Trump impersonation. The little man-child in charge says insane things throughout the movie, makes horrible choices, gets his own men killed in droves because of these choices, and never takes the hint that he’s disgraced his country despite being exiled from it — twice! But that’s me giving Scott and this movie waaaay too much credit.

Bottom line? Save this one for on-demand or streaming, or even when it hits cable in what I’m guessing will be no time at all. Don’t waste any real money on this. Napoleon deserved better, and so do we.

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