Many famous quotes are attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte.
“History is a set of lies agreed upon” is one. “Never interrupt your enemy when he’s making a mistake” is one other.
After which there’s a less familiar line that’s uttered by the emperor of France in Ridley Scott’s movie “Napoleon,” starring Joaquin Phoenix: “Destiny has brought me this lamb chop!”
Running time: 158 minutes. Rated R (strong violence, some grisly images, sexual content and temporary language). In theaters Nov. 22
Earlier, when the strategic genius is frustrated by rival Britain’s naval might, he whines like a bit of boy who’s been bullied at recess, “You’re thinking that you’re so great because you’ve gotten boats!”
Depicting one of the vital consequential figures in all of European history as a sourpuss clown who crazily rattles off nonsense is a brow-raising selection by Scott, screenwriter David Scarpa and the at all times peculiar Phoenix.
In any case, an individual can’t thoroughly forge a half-million-square-mile, multi-continental empire by being a complete moron.
But that’s what this Napoleon is — a idiot. Viewers spend many of the two and a half hours (Scott says his Apple TV+ cut will likely be a merciless 4) laughing mockingly on the guy who commissioned the Napoleonic Code. Our ever-present thought bubble: What the hell is Joaquin doing?
Typical Phoenix gives us his same creepy, whack-job performance from “Joker,” only now Arthur Fleck is accompanied by a sharp hat, massive scenery, impressive battles and a supremely expert co-star in Vanessa Kirby.
The actor’s looney tunes turn is very confusing because Scott doesn’t otherwise appear to be attempting to break any latest ground for history epics. “Napoleon” is, by and enormous, a run-of-the-mill, if reasonably anemic, battlefield biography.
The film begins right once you would expect it might — through the French Revolution in 1789 — and speeds to the beheading of Marie Antoinette and the autumn of Maximilien Robespierre. We barrel through Napoleon’s rise from artillery commander to his coronation as emperor, which he pursues partially to shake off his fame as a “Corsican thug.”
Perhaps the character’s island upbringing is why Phoenix speaks in his natural American accent while everybody else around him — mostly Francophones and Austrians — chat in posh English brogues.
But that uniform chorus of Angleterre voices from actors comparable to Rupert Everett and Ben Miles becomes a jumble when France starts fighting, um, the British.
When Napoleon just isn’t attacking neighbors, he’s going head-to-head along with his wife, Josephine.
To stop the movie from becoming a repetitive series of coups and bloody bouts, Napoleon’s relationship to the empress gets ample airtime — particularly the juicy drama of it. Josephine is oversexed and has a nasty habit of cheating on itty-bitty Napoleon, which infuriates the person with an inferiority complex named after him.
On certainly one of the couple’s first dates, she spreads her legs “Basic Instinct”-style and says, “When you look down, you’ll see a surprise. And when you’ve seen it, you’ll at all times want it.”
Ew. That awkward comment proves true, and he obsesses over Josephine his entire life — even after he dumps her for a lady who can bear him an heir. The regal Kirby, who knows her way around a palace, turns the empress right into a sparring partner for Napoleon. She’s vicious, loving and stuffed with mischief.
Nonetheless, as Scott showed with the plodding “House of Gucci,” starring Adam Driver and Lady Gaga as Italian fashion royalty, passionate relationships should not this director’s strongest suit. Your entire movie, even the story of Leon and Josie, is as cold as a Russian winter.
Speaking of Napoleon’s botched invasion of Russia, the “Gladiator” director naturally fares much better with the various fight sequences. Overhead shots of horizon-wide cavalry charges, cannon fire, burning ships and other wartime sights are appropriately gigantic and brutal. The Battle of Austerlitz is very exciting.
That’s all well and good, nonetheless it’s too bad Scott couldn’t deliver an excellent character study of certainly one of the world’s great military leaders — and as an alternative settled for letting a self-indulgent Phoenix fly over the cuckoo’s nest.