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Da Vinci Code, The

Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 05/19/06 03:49:40

"So mediocre the con of Ron Howard and Akiva Goldsman."
3 stars (Just Average)

The first thing you need to know about Ron Howard's ("Cinderella Man," "The Missing," "A Beautiful Mind," "Far and Away," "Apollo 13") adaptation of Dan Brown's mega-selling pulp/conspiracy/mystery novel, "The Da Vinci Code," is that it's two hours and a half long. That kind of running length suggests bloat, self-indulgence, and pacing issues. Columbia Pictures also limited stateside press screenings, premiering "The Da Vinci Code" for the general public (and attending press) at the Cannes Film Festival. Why? Officially, to minimize criticism from the Catholic Church, but no less obviously, to limit negative reviews. It's a strategy usually associated with low-end genre films that studio execs want to hide from the paying public to maximize box office returns before the inevitable bad word-of-mouth.

After an initial scene centered on a stalk-and-chase inside the Louvre Museum, The Da Vinci Code introduces Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), a professor of symbology at Harvard University in Paris on a book signing tour (his latest book explores the “sacred feminine” in mythology and history). Captain Bezu Fache (Jean Reno) calls in Langdon to the Louvre, due to his connection with the murdered man, Jacques Sauniere (Jean-Pierre Marielle). Before dying, Sauniere left several clues, including a cryptic message scrawled on the ground in marker. Enter Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou), a cryptologist working with the French police. She quickly signals Langdon that he’s in danger. Fache suspects that Langdon killed Sauniere. Sophie reveals that Sauniere was, in fact, her grandfather. They escape from the Louvre after collecting several clues and objects hidden in Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (Langdon deciphers Sauniere’s message as an anagram), including a key shaped as a fleur-de-lis.

On the run, Langdon and Sophie first find themselves at an exclusive bank where the key provides them with another object, a cryptex (an antique, coded cylindrical object that can hold the answers to who and why Sauniere was killed). Fache and his men arrive at the bank, but not in time to apprehend Langdon and Sophie. Langdon suggests a temporary haven, the expansive private residence of an English academic, Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen). As Sophie listens, Teabing informs her of the church’s alternate, hidden history, clandestine societies, and a secret that Teabing believes will, if exposed, rock the foundations of the Catholic Church and Christianity. Initially skeptical, Langdon slowly begins to believe Teabing’s version of events.

In another part of the story world, Bishop Aringarosa (Alfred Molina), a leader of a super-secret, conspiratorial organization inside the Catholic Church, Opus Dei, sends Silas (Paul Bettany), a self-flagellating albino monk/assassin, to recover any evidence of this secret history and eliminate any witnesses or interested parties. Fache continues to track Langdon and Sophie, first following them to Teabing’s estate and later to London. Of course, the characters and storylines eventually converge, with the inevitable exposure of hidden motives, duplicity, reversals, revelations and explanations that confirm the secret history (and an heir to that history).

Anyone who's read the novel knows the secret that Opus Dei is desperate to keep hidden from the rest of the world. A bigger, unresolved question here is why audiences flock to adaptation of their favorite film, especially knowing every major and minor plot turn, including the secret at the center of the novel, as well as the respective fates of the major and minor characters. Adapting a novel for the big screen, especially a bestselling novel read by an estimated 60 million readers in 44 languages, is always a difficult proposition. The filmmakers have to balance satisfying fans of the novel that expect to see their favorite characters, subplots, and plot turns alchemically translated into cinematic form against the need to streamline the storyline to emphasize action and minimize the digressions typical of narrative fiction. A novel like The Da Vinci Code is all the more difficult because of the amount of historical detail and digressive speculation that fills its pages.

Sadly, either due to The Da Vinci Code’s inherent limitations or Akiva Goldsman and Ron Howard’s inability to “crack’ the novel and translate its strengths from page to screen, The Da Vinci Code plods along, from one clue or object to another, with multiple stops on exposition road. For an “action” thriller, The Da Vinci Code emphasizes dialogue over action, with Langdon relegated to a subsidiary role on several occasions (he’s a passenger during a car chase, and later, knocked out during a confrontation with another character, leaving other characters to save the day). As a character, Langdon barely has any backstory. We learn only that he’s an academic and that he’s claustrophobic (cue flashback to a traumatic childhood incident). Then there’s the patently ridiculous, and for the National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation (NOAH), offensive caricature of albinos as “freaks” and, of course, evil. According to the NOAH, the "evil albino" stereotype has been used in films 68 times since 1970. Point to the NOAH then.

While Goldsman and Howard try to cover long dialogue scenes with grainy flashbacks (often juxtaposing speaking characters against the flashback), it quickly grows tiresome through overuse (do we really need a recreation of 12th-century Crusaders storming Jerusalem?). Howard also uses what David Bordwell calls “intensified continuity,” fast cutting, constant camera movement (and cutting on movement) in practically every scene. With dialogue-heavy scene after dialogue-heavy scene, it’s easy to understand why the usually reliable Howard went in this direction. Unfortunately, style alone isn’t enough (it never is) to keep The Da Vinci Code from quickly devolving into an unengaging talkfest.

Acting wise, The Da Vinci Code’s producers made all the “safe” (read: unimaginative) choices, an Oscar-winning leading man in Tom Hanks (Forest Gump, Apollo 13, Castaway), a young, beautiful actress in Audrey Tautou (Amelie), and supporting turns by Jean Reno, Alfred Molina, Jürgen Prochnow, and Ian McKellen, all of whom give lackluster, uninspired performances. More importantly, Hanks and Tautou have zero chemistry. Hanks is probably ten years too old and Tautou is probably ten years too young (Tautou actually had to be convinced to audition for the role, a role she assumed would go to an older, more experienced actress). Setting aside Tautou’s age appropriateness, Tautou is also too slight in height and weight next to the much taller, heavier Hanks. And is Jean Reno the only available French actor capable of playing an English-speaking French police officer in an American-financed film? Apparently, the answer is an unqualified yes.

All the "controversy" generated by the Catholic Church's objections to "The Da Vinci Code" all essentially free publicity for a film adaptation that frankly doesn't need any (e.g., the semi-fictionalized depiction of Opus Dei as violence-prone ideologues, the alternate history of the Church’s founding, etc.). After all, a book that sells more than 60 million copies already has a built-in audience eager to see the novel translated into film (regardless of the quality of the film). At least for the opening weekend, "The Da Vinci Code" is practically critic proof. Howard and Goldsman may have just proven that "The Da Vinci Code" is better read at a leisurely pace than seen on a big screen in a bloated, two-and-a-half hour adaptation (or as one of my companions suggested, think of the film adaptation as a “visual companion” to the novel).

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