Far and away the Italo holiday season’s biggest local hit, “S.P.Q.R.: 2,000 and a Half Years Ago” has raked in close to $ 15 million since its Dec. 16 release. With Leslie Nielsen in the cast and a succession of hoary yucks broad enough to tickle the average undiscerning funny bone, this crass comedy set in ancient Rome might see additional action as offshore vid title.
Despite the enlistment of Nielsen and the same perilous clumsiness his “Naked Gun” character unleashes on passers-by, the Vanzina Bros. (Enrico and Carlo) writer/director team pose no threat whatsoever to Zucker/Abrams/Zucker. This toga-clad trifle shifts the kickbacks, corruption, foibles and fads of modern Italy back to 71 B.C. But there ends the joke.
Arriving in Rome from northern Mediolanum, ambitious magistrate Antonio Servilio (Massimo Boldi) is riled when he bumps chariots on the Appian Way with womanizing senator Cesare Atticus (Christian De Sica). Every subsequent encounter with the crooked senator adds fuel to his grudge. Armed with testimony from Atticus’ spurned mistress (Gabriella Labate) on tax evasion, underpaid servants and rampant palm-greasing, the judge places him under official investigation.
Atticus tries first to bribe Servilio, then with help from his ranting, right-wing party chief, Lucio Cinico (Nielsen), he has a busty bordello queen (Anna Falchi) lure the judge into an orgy. Shamed before the magistrature, Servilio is exiled to a Sicilian island where he stumbles onto a prototype Mafia in cahoots with the capital. In light of the unequivocal evidence against him, Atticus comes clean to the judge, and together they expose heavy-duty graft culprit Cinico.
Just in case auds haven’t twigged to the notion that nothing has changed in 2 ,000 years, an unnecessary coda segues from Servilio and Atticus being crucified on the Appian Way to their present-day descendants having an identical first meeting in a chaotic traffic jam.
Gym culture, fashion shows (for Versacius), supermodels, discotheques and soccer fanaticism are among the contempo conventions transported back in time, some of which are legitimately funny. But genuine invention is thin, and despite its premise, “S.P.Q.R.” is no more timely than “Carry on Cleo.” The film sticks mainly to formulaic gags.
Cast goes mainly for unrestrained mugging. TV comic Boldi takes the most predictable route to an easy laugh, while Nielsen’s comic skills are vastly underused. Through his gleeful, vulgar boisterousness, De Sica fares better than the rest, bringing the pic some energy that’s not there in the writing or direction.