The commercials for Ridley Scott’s Napoleon play up the epic scale and action sequences of the film and I suppose that’s fair enough. All that stuff is here. If you want to see 19th century battles with horses and cannons, there will be plenty of that for you ahead in this movie with a runtime of just under 160 minutes, though moves like a movie much shorter. What isn’t being played up as much is the fact, well, Joaquin Phoenix’s Napoleon Bonaparte is … well he’s quite hilarious.
I cannot take credit for this observation, but a friend of mine who saw the movie said, “It’s like watching Tim Robinson play Napoleon,” and this is pretty dead on. Oh, make no mistake, this is by design. This is not my way of saying Napoleon is bad. It’s honestly now one of my favorite movies of the year – a movie that, before I saw it, looked a little too stoic and “important.” Instead, I probably laughed harder during this movie than I have during any new movie this year. And the laughs are genuine and intentional.
For example, anytime Napoleon wants to have sex with Josephine he starts making this goofy face while saying, “nom nom nom nom nom.” This is high comedy. There are around 100 times in this movie when someone will insult Napoleon to his face, or sleep with his wife, where in any other movie about an emperor the offending party would be immediately executed. Instead, Napoleon just screams something like, “Well be that as it may!” and continues on with his life. In a tense and standoffish negotiation with the English, Napoleon, very much being looked down upon, screams, “You think you’re so great because you have boats!!!” I applauded this scene.
There’s been mention Ridley Scott reunited with Phoenix after Phoenix’s performance as Joker, but Phoenix’s performance here as Napoleon has more in common with Alan Rickman’s Sheriff of Nottingham from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves than Joker. Napoleon isn’t going to shoot someone on live television, but he might scream at his staff to call off Christmas. I truly hope Phoenix gets an Oscar nomination for his portrayal because it’s inspired that he decided to make Napoleon interesting he had to make him funny. (A child starts questioning Napoleon’s claim he burned down Moscow and, in response, Napoleon starts throwing grapes at this child.)
Look, I’m not an expert on the history of Napoleon but I think there are some historical inaccuracies in this movie. And I don’t really care. As far as I’m concerned this is how it all went down now. But, yes, the film opens with Marie Antoinette facing the guillotine and a rising star in the military, Napoleon Bonaparte, seeing an opportunity. Napoleon leads his first major military victory and is promoted to general and gains a reputation as an expert in the art of battle. (Even in this scene, Napoleon’s horse he’s riding is blown up by a cannonball. As Napoleon is helped up he’s asked if he’s okay and answers in a very, “Yes I’m okay. Of course I’m okay. Why wouldn’t I be okay?” tone. I mean, maybe because your horse just blew up?
Napoleon meets Josephine (Vanessa Kirby) and it’s established pretty early that Josephine can be as terrible to Napoleon as she wants with little repercussions. Napoleon is portrayed as a love-sick fool who writes her letters every day from the front lines of battle while she carries on with a new lover. The local paper even has a cartoon making fun of all this happening under Napoleon’s nose, which he sees, and instead of revenge, he just temporarily puts her belongings on the front yard and screams. Even the man Josephine has an affair with seems to just go on with his life with no repercussions.
Speaking of funny, as Napoleon writes to Josephine, as his troops invade Russia during the winter, we hear his voiceover in the most cockily hilarious tone that victory awaits. Well, as we learned long ago, victory doesn’t await this time. We watch Napoleon lose power, then struggle once again to regain it, then make some more bad decisions.
In 2003, I went to the upper highlands of Scotland for a wedding. I found myself at some hole-in-the-wall pup in a town called Plockton. A couple of locals were sitting next to me and we started talking. Without anything to really offer, I asked, “So, do you guys like Braveheart?” One guy looked at me and said, “It’s an entertaining movie. It’s true they put William Wallace’s head up on the castle, but if you’re looking for historical accuracy it’s crap!” (He literally said “crap,” just like the Mike Meyers character.) So I’ll echo that here, if you’re looking to nitpick historical accuracy, Napoleon is going to drive you bonkers. But good gosh is it entertaining. And funny. Don’t forget funny. In fact, I got a text asking how Napoleon is and I responded quickly, “It’s hilarious,” right before I got on the subway. The response was, “What a surprising sentence.” If Ridley Scott wants to change the narrative around Napoleon to “blowhard buffoon,” with this movie he succeeds.
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