HOMER'S heroic Odysseus survived the Trojan War, a one-eyed
people-eater and even a trip to Hades, but he can't quite survive a
big-budget treatment from NBC.
"The Odyssey" (8 p.m. Sunday and Monday on Channel 5) is
certainly good looking, as it ought to be, considering that it cost
$40 million - $10 million for each of its four hours.
It's packed with stars, headed by Armand Assante as the
wandering hero and Greta Scacchi as his faithful wife, Penelope.
And, even after more than 2,000 years, this is a great yarn.
So what went wrong? Why is "The Odyssey," although
intermittently charming and even involving, such a chore to plod
Part of the blame has to go to director Andrei Konchalovsky,
who co-wrote the screenplay (with Christopher Solimine) and
apparently couldn't decide whether to make a cheerful comic book,
in the style of "Xena: Warrior Princess," or a Greek tragedy.
But another big flaw is the performance of Assante, whose
Odysseus seems smaller than life, a grumpy, middle-aged man who
sometimes looks astonished and/or puzzled by what he sees, but
mainly acts as if he has a bad headache.
He even looks this way in the slapstick opening scene of "The
Odyssey" (found nowhere in Homer's epic poem), in which Penelope
gives birth to son Telemachus in "I Love Lucy" fashion. Almost
immediately, though, there's a sad farewell as Odysseus gets beeped
for the Trojan War.
En route, the goddess Athena (Isabella Rossellini, looking
believably goddess-like), drops in for a little visit, urging
Odysseus to "do battle, become immortal, have your name on the lips
of future generations."
So he goes, but little does he know he'll be gone, well,
forever. At least that's what Poseidon vows after Odysseus - having
scored big with that Trojan Horse gag - fails to thank the gods for
the victory. In retaliation, the petulant deity sentences Odysseus
and crew to "drift on my sea for an eternity."
This is all pretty depressing, not to mention bloody, with
Assante providing exhausted-sounding voice-over of lines like, "In
the seventh year, Achilles, a god among men, was slain."
Once the wandering starts, things perk up, for us if not for
Odysseus and Co. Sighting an island, the hungry sailors find a
cache of cheese and ignore the big footprints that turn out to
belong to a Cyclops, a one-eyed monster created delightfully by the
Jim Henson shop. (Family-viewing warning: This is a Muppet that
snacks on humans, sno-cone style.)
Other early stops take Odysseus and his dwindling crew to the
home of the wind god (Michael J. Pollard) and to the island of
Circe (Bernadette Peters), whose drugged wine turns men into
animals - mainly, swine. These episodes are fun, if all too brief.
Back at the palace, Penelope is lonely (and one scene in which
she th rashes around in the ocean is vaguely R-rated). Odysseus'
mother (Irene Pappas) goes her one better: Unable to stand not
knowing whether her son is dead or alive, she drowns herself. …