'Cleopatra': In this story version of history, that asp can't come soon enough.

May 22, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

I warned you, didn't I?

When "Noah's Ark" debuted at the start of this dreadful month of "sweeps" excess, I said, "Stop Halmi, before he kills again."

But, nooooooooooooo. You went ahead and watched executive producer Robert Halmi's "Noah" (with its God-as-Chatty-Cathy take on the Bible) in droves, and now Halmi's turning ancient Rome and Egypt into his big-budget, prime-time nutsiness with four hours of "Cleopatra" starting tomorrow night on ABC.

Forget Cicero and "Gallia est omnia divisa into partes tres." This is Julius Caesar with the seven-year-itch and a bad case of the middle-age blues sneaking down to Egypt behind Calpurnia's back for a little action with this wild child called Cleo.

This is ancient Roman and Egyptian history put through the Halmi shredder of all things historical and turned into "Melrose Place" meets "Ricki Lake" mush. If the study of the classics isn't dead, this will surely kill it. I can't believe I watched all four hours and still have enough brain matter left to actually form words and write sentences.

The film opens away from the Egyptian capital with Cleopatra (Leonor Varela) in exile because her evil sister and little brother have seized the throne. But Cleopatra has a plan. She sends for the "most accomplished courtesan" in the city where she is staying and tells the woman, "I want a man to fall in love me. Is there an art to making love? I want to know."

These are the very first words we hear her say.

"Oh, yes," the courtesan replies, "but there is so much to tell. Men like to be touched ..."

Let's leave it there, but you get the idea of where this film's priorities are and what aspects of Cleopatra are going to be explored. Yes, there is plenty of flesh right up to the last eye-level-of-the-asp camera cleavage dive.

The man she wants to make fall in love with her, of course, is Caesar. I guess, because he can help her regain the throne. And, I guess you could say the rest is history, except this is history-according-Halmi: dumbed-down and sexed-up. He's been at it since "Scarlett," his 1992 Civil-War-as-sex-romp sequel to "Gone With the Wind." After seven years of Halmi's TV epics, maybe there is not enough historical consciousness left in America to talk about.

And, by the way, who co-starred in "Scarlett" as Rhett Butler? Why none other than the great Timothy Dalton, who plays Caesar to Varela's Cleopatra. I have always thought Dalton was an over-rated hack who got some decent parts only by the grace of Hollywood Anglophilia. But you can judge for yourself after seeing him in this role which mainly requires getting in and out of bed with Cleopatra and riding a horse into battle. Memo to Tim: Lose the love handles.

After Caesar does the "et tu, Brutus" bit, luckily, there's Marc Anthony (Billy Zane); otherwise ABC wouldn't have another full night to torture us with. Zane, who is supposed to look like a young Marlon Brando, plays Anthony with a vacant, matinee-idol grin on his face that makes Ted Baxter seem deep.

As for Varela, remember when MTV-queen Jenny McCarthy got a new series on NBC two years ago and there was all this anticipation? Then, people actually saw her in the series and were stunned by her utter inability to act.

Well, Varela is every bit the actress McCarthy is. In fairness, though, I should say Varela has a hopeless script. It mainly has her taking off clothes, rolling her eyes up and to the side as if she is scheming and going into little hissy fits when she hears upsetting gossip like Caesar is back in Rome and sleeping with his wife. I swear, the script makes most daytime soap opera writing seem textured.

If I sound mad about this production, it's because I am. I'm mad about the gross excess of money spent. The Alexandria set alone cost $2.5 million. I am mad about the way culture is essentially ignored (for example: the colonialism by the Europeans of Rome of peoples of color). But most of all, I am mad about the way the production debases everything historical that it touches.

Here is director Franc Roddam, explaining what's special about his version: "In the past, Cleopatra has always been defined as a scheming, conniving woman. If a woman had power, it meant she got it through some nefarious means. I think that's a very old-fashioned notion. Our Cleopatra is a woman with power, but also with a clear purpose and a righteous purpose."

Does the opening scene with the courtesan sound anything like the "righteous" and scheme-free Cleopatra Roddam describes? But, hey, let's see if we can co-opt the women's movement to lend some sociological gravitas to our sorry production.

As for Halmi, here's how he's selling the film: "It is entertaining, you can learn something and it's big. You know, you don't have to go the movies any more to see big. Just stay home and see big."

It's big all right. Big, dumb and depressing.

`Cleopatra'

When: 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. tomorrow and Monday

Where: WMAR (Channel 2)

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