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HBO's House of Saddam could use a fixer-upper

A house is not a home: Saddam with second wife Samira.

Blend The Sopranos with The Godfather, add mustaches all around and out comes HBO's four-hour, two-night House of Saddam.

Except that it's disappointingly and surprisingly bloodless, both as a drama and in depicting the mass carnage inflicted by the late Saddam Hussein.

Oddly scheduled during the holiday season, House of Saddam begins on Sunday, Dec. 7th at 8 p.m. (central) and concludes a week later at the same hour. Those who stay the course might find the opening two hours appreciably more interesting than the concluding Hour 4, which abruptly sends Saddam on the lam and then drearily winds down to his eventual capture by U.S forces.

Saddam is played by Israeli actor Igal Naor (Munich), who certainly looks the part. Alternately chortling and glowering, his formative Saddam -- the story begins in 1979 -- is bedeviled by both a domineering mother and amoral older son, Uday (Philip Arditti), who in time becomes the headstrong, violence- and drug-addicted Sonny Corleone of the piece.

Younger son Qusay (Mounir Margoum) is far quieter, more cerebral and easily envisioned as Michael Corleone. But he'll do his father's bidding when push comes to shove, which it always does.

Saddam as Vito Corleone gives way to Saddam as Tony Soprano when it comes to matters of the flesh. Wife Sajida (Shohreh Aghadashloo, House of Sand), the mother of Saddam's two sons and two daughters, has grown accustomed to her creature comforts.

But he's become bored with her in bed, and divorce is an easy proposition when you're an all-powerful dictator. So Saddam humilates Sajida by taking a second wife, the blonde and much younger Samira Shahbandar (Christine Stephen-Daly). He then arranges the execution of Sajida's brother, whom he's convinced is a traitor. When she tearily upbraids him, he coldly retorts, "Sajida, go shopping."

Saddam also enjoys swimming pools, as did Tony. But near the end, he spends some quality time conversing with a little boy, as did Vito.

Both President Bushes play themselves in news footage. Still, don't expect much depth when it comes to either Saddam's invasion of Kuwait or the U.S. invasion of Iraq after George W. warns of "military conflict, commenced at a time of our choosing."

Weapons of mass destruction also seem almost beside the point in this BBC co-production. And the mass graves that a fugitive Saddam left behind are mentioned only in passing via a smidgen of news footage.

The filmmakers obviously have a big story to tell, and wanted to concentrate on the inner sanctum aspects of Saddam's rule. Still, House of Saddam winds up feeling far emptier than it should have. It's also almost comically soap opera-ish on occasion, with Saddam raging, "What are we, barbarians!?" after Uday beats one of the old man's gofers to death while in another of his drunken rages.

Uday never learns, though. "Hasta la vista, baby," he later tells his hated brother-in-law, Hussein Kamel (Amr Waked), while putting a gun to his face. It's impossible to take this scene seriously. Nor does it help that the actor who plays Uday looks very much like a young Tim Curry.

In the end, as most everyone knows, Saddam was pulled out of his hiding hole and eventually executed on Dec. 30, 2006. House of Saddam spends way too much time getting him into that hole and then no time at all on his incarceration, trial and hanging. All of which makes these four hours add up to surprisingly little during a holiday season when other cheerier pursuits are far more enticing anyway.