Da Vinci Code, The

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 05/19/06 00:43:33

"Mona Lisa's smiling because she didn't have to watch this mess."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

When Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” became the biggest (non-Quidditch-related) publishing event in recent history, I did not bother reading the book. When it spawned a cottage industry, with countless companion pieces, documentaries, and TV specials discussing the various aspects of history the novel uses as the backbone of its plot, I did not get around to reading the book. When news reports would tell of protests from religious officials angry with Brown’s use of controversial ideas, I couldn’t muster the interest to read the book. When friends would argue over whether it was a fun, light adventure or the worst book ever written, my curiosity never grew to the point of me reading the book. Even when my wife got a copy as a present last Christmas, I still never got around to reading the book.

I’m telling you this because I have finally seen the long-anticipated movie adaptation of “The Da Vinci Code,” the one that’s such a big event that Ron Howard directed it and Tom Hanks starred in it, and the main thought that ran through my head for two and a half hours straight was: that’s all there is?

I cannot vouch for the novel, but the movie is a remarkably underwhelming experience. There is too little character chemistry, too few surprises, and too much nothingness. It’s dull, rambling, and quite unexciting. It’s all little more than a scavenger hunt on celluloid.

But I will admit something: everything that is wrong with “The Da Vinci Code” as a movie stems entirely from its story. This is a film that has been competently produced in every other way - but it’s impossible to rise above “competent” when the material just isn’t there.

The story, for those still unfamiliar with the novel, begins with the murder of the curator of the Louvre, who in his dying moments leaves a series of clues throughout the museum for Robert Langdon (Hanks), a writer, lecturer, and Harvard symbologist. And right there, we’re already wondering why this guy would spend his time hiding cryptic messages throughout the world’s most famous museum instead of just sitting down and writing “I was shot by a creepy albino monk, and since I have a few minutes, let me tell you exactly who it was and why he did it.” (We’re also wondering what a “symbologist” is, but let’s let that one slide for now.)

I know what you’re thinking: “But Dave, you’re the one who loved ‘National Treasure,’ which was pretty much the same thing.” First, I thank you for your expert memory and almost stalker-esque devotion to my work. Second, I compare the two by saying “National Treasure” rounded out its ridiculously implausible set-up with enjoyable characters, thrilling action sequences, and an all around sense of big fun. “The Da Vinci Code” gives us the same point-to-point clue solving and globetrotting, but it does so without a single ounce of energy. Sure, the clues are nifty enough, but there’s nothing keeping us interested in between them.

The problem falls mostly with the two main treasure hunters. Langdon is a bit of a drip, not adventurous to be exciting, not corny enough to give the sense of small-guy-caught-up-in-big-adventure. Hanks does what he can with the role, but there’s simply nothing to do but stand around and grimace, punctuated with the occasional burst of a puzzle solution.

Then there’s French agent Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou), who accompanies Langdon on his journey. She’s supposed to be an expert cryptographer and all-around puzzle-solving whiz, and yet all she does is just sort of hang around Langdon, doing very little other than watching Langdon stand around and grimace. She fits into the story, yes, but it seems that the only reason she’s around is so that when the plot starts dealing with her history, she can be around to look surprised.

And while I was not expecting a romance of any sort between the two leads, at the very least I expected some sort of chemistry between them. Only at the very ending of the film - when it’s far, far too late to count for anything - do we feel a sense of connection here. For the rest of the film, we’re just watching two people who happen to be going to the same places at the same time.

Again, it is not the cast to blame; Tautou, like Hanks, provides a decent performance, getting the most she possibly can out of standing around watching her co-star stand around and grimace. But what can you do as an actor when the script is entirely concerned with the convolutions of the plot and not at all concerned with notions of character development (beyond development pertaining to convolutions of the plot) and relationship interaction? There is something about Langdon having claustrophobia that’s supposed to pass for deep character construction, but it’s far too flimsy to actually work. Meanwhile, everything regarding Sophie’s “development” hinges entirely on the plot itself, so that doesn’t count.

In fact, the only time the story shows the slightest interest in people as anything other than plot pawns is when it’s dealing with the bad guys and supporting roles. Ian McKellen lands a rather fetching role as Langdon’s colleague, a man who knows so much about the historical mysteries the heroes uncover that he gets to bring the plot to a halt to talk endlessly about Da Vinci’s paintings and their connections to the early days of Christianity. We do not mind so much because it is Ian McKellen doing the talking, which is always an enjoyable thing to behold.

The more I think about that scene, however, the more the inherent problems of the story become clear. Ultimately, this is not the tale of someone discovering Great and Dangerous Secrets, but one of someone having Great and Dangerous Secrets merely told to him. All the legwork’s already been done; Langdon’s job is to simply wander around until somebody else explains everything to him. All the connections to Da Vinci and Isaac Newton and the secret societies have been made years before the movie even starts. As such, there’s not as effective a sense of discovery. The biggest a-ha! moment here comes when we all sit down and listen to McKellen give a lecture. That’s it.

The story even promises us a massive conspiracy that it simply doesn’t deliver. Not just in the clumsiness of the murders the open the film (instead of showing us three killings that might have been interesting to watch and might have helped get the story rolling, we’re just told that they happened, yawn), but in the notion that the Great and Dangerous Secret discovered by - I mean: told to - Langdon is so great and so dangerous that one would expect a worldwide organization connected to it. We’re informed of a long line of defenders of the secret on both sides (those that want to protect it and those that want to destroy it), but it merely comes down to two or three bad guys and, if you want to count them, a small family in France that we meet after the action’s all finished. Once again, “The Da Vinci Code” proves itself unable to reach the heights it thinks it’s hitting.

But back to those side characters. Alfred Molina and Jean Reno are both fun to watch, despite both of them being generic one-noters (a corrupt bishop and an obsessive cop, respectively). Paul Bettany, meanwhile, manages to be both relatively creepy and unbearably silly as the hit man who’s out to stop Langdon; Bettany gets the menace down right, but the gimmick of the villain - he’s an albino who practices self-flagellation - leaves him running around with this pained look on his face that forces a few giggles; his perpetual pain leaves face is in a state of permanent disgust, which can get pretty dopey at times.

Then again, this is a movie that thinks a limping, gun-toting albino monk wearing a hooded robe and skulking around modern day Paris is “inconspicuous,” so perhaps we should be happy that things don’t get dopier more often.

I now come to two important things that must, I suppose, be discussed in any proper review of “The Da Vinci Code.” The first is the issue of adaptation. My wife informs me that most of what she enjoyed in the book - the clue solving bits - has been deleted entirely, with the focus placed instead almost entirely on the action. Perhaps this is the only way to translate the novel to film, yes, but when a book (I’m told) fails miserably on one level, perhaps that’s the one level that should be toned down in the movie, yes? Apparently not.

I am also informed that most of the story has been simplified quite a bit, although looking at the movie, I can’t imagine it being any less complicated, so this one’s a gimme. There’s one place the script does make things more complicated, and that’s with a massive alteration in the relationship between Sophie and her grandfather, this new version lacking a great deal of logic. So it might seem that it is screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, and not Dan Brown, who makes this story such an uneventful bore.

Issue number two is that of the so-called religious controversy. As you’ve no doubt heard from the news, groups are protesting this movie worldwide, and some Catholic-dominant countries are even refusing to show it (or, at least, show it in an unedited form). All of this because of the Great and Dangerous Secret, which suggests that Jesus may have merely been mortal, and that he may have had a child.

Now, I applaud the book and the film for being bold enough to suggest such potentially controversial ideas; a little shake-up’s always fun, and to go this far in your big ideas is a crazy, interesting move. And anyone willing to bring discussions of such subjects as the origins of religion and who was in charge of cementing its beliefs over the centuries is fine by me. What’s wrong with studying the past? (Even if Brown gets his facts wrong - which he does, to be certain - it’s something that’ll get people talking. And I like it when people are talking.)

But the key here is that it’s all a work of fiction. “The Da Vinci Code” claims to be rooted in actual research, but all it really does is take a few ideas that have been tossed around over the years and use them as the foundation of a silly little thriller, nothing more. “Fiction,” as we recall, means “made up.” After all, to paraphrase someone wiser than I, if your faith can be shaken by a light beach-read adventure and its popcorn summer movie adaptation, then the problem lies far more within your faith than with the book and the movie.

Especially if said movie is as slight and mediocre as “The Da Vinci Code.”

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