Da Vinci Code, The

Reviewed By Dawn Taylor
Posted 05/21/06 17:56:58

"It's a Ron Howard film. Meaning, just good enough to not suck."
3 stars (Just Average)

The single most interesting thing about "The Da Vinci Code" is that it isn't nearly as awful as the early reviews would have you believe. Oh, it's not a great movie. It may not even be a good one. But having sat through 90-minute films that felt like an entire day spent in line at the DMV, I have to say that the two-and-a-half hours of "Da Vinci" passed for me without misery. So ... why all the vitriol?

Director Ron Howard has carved out a career for himself making films exactly like this one, over and over competent films that get the job done, telling a nicely paced story without any flash or notable artistry. I mean, I know that at some point I sat through "Ransom" and "Backdraft" and "Apollo 13" and "A Beautiful Mind," but I'll be damned if I could describe a single scene from any of those films they were neither good enough to rate space in my memory bank nor bad enough to have impressed anything groan-inducing on my brainmeats. They were ... okay. Similarly, Tom Hanks is an affable, watchable actor who tends to star in movies that I've despised (his work with Robert Zemeckis holds a special place on my hate list) but I have nothing against the man personally. Frankly, neither he nor Howard have done much since "Splash" that I've found particularly outstanding one way or the other.

Here, Howard and Hanks take on one of the most undeservingly praised novels in the history of American literature, a by-the-numbers treasure hunt potboiler with conspiracy-theory overtones by hack writer Dan Brown. With a script by one of Hollywood's worst screenwriters, Akiva Goldsman, it's to Howard's and Hanks' credit that the resulting movie is far more entertaining than the Tomatometer bears out.

It does, however, waste a stellar cast with obscene disregard for their talent, with the exception of Ian McKellan. As an expert in all things Holy Grail, Sir Ian plays the fellow that Hanks' symbology expert, Robert Langdon, runs to when a dead art curator leaves him with clues pointing at the location of that famed relic. In the course of his search, Langdon drags along the dead curator's pretty young cipherhound granddaughter (the marvelous Audrey Tautou, looking fashionably undernourished) on what's basically a 150-minute scavenger hunt. Notes contain cryptic poems, boxes have secret compartments, famous paintings offer symbolic meaning ... and at each step of the process, Hanks and Tautou and McKellan explain things to each other so that we, the audience, can follow along with what they're doing. It's all rather uninvolving as a thriller, but interesting in the same manner as doing a very easy crossword puzzle there are worse ways to kill time, and at least your brain's getting some exercise without any of it being especially taxing.

But then there's that waste of talent. Jean Reno, as a policeman with a hidden agenda, chases after Hanks and Tautou throughout the length of the film but never actually accomplishes anything, just sort of disappearing from the plot at the end. Paul Bettany has a juicy role as a crazy albino monk assassin with a religious-fanatic pain fetish, but he's also dealt with rather abruptly, his character ultimately being all promise with little payoff. And Hanks himself plays a character who's all reaction and no motivation beyond his profession, the only thing we know about him is that he's moderately claustrophobic due to a childhood incident. Frankly, a fear of elevators isn't much of a backstory for a film's protagonist, so really he's nothing more than a long-haired goof running from place to place and reading stuff off scraps of paper.

The film peaks whenever McKellan's on-screen, though. His mini-lecture on the Catholic Church's long-standing ambivalence about Mary Magdalene and Jesus's mortality is fascinating, and his bitchy relationship with his manservant is so delightful that it highlights the sketchy fabrication of the film's other characters. His is the King of Spades on which all of the cards in this wobbly construction depend, and it's mainly due to McKellan's performance that the entire thing doesn't collapse into a pile of paranoid absurdity he makes the whole silly enterprise believable.

Given the declamations by the Vatican regarding the film's scurrilous claims against the Catholic Church, it's kind of funny that the huge allowances made by Howard and Goldsman on their behalf are so blatant. The church claims that the film makes Opus Dei look like fanatics and killers yet characters in the film say, several times, that the baddies here aren't really Opus Dei, they're members of a nutjob, extremist offshoot of Opus Dei. It's a patently condescending sop thrown to the Catholics, but it's apparently not good enough for the Pope.

Ultimately, this is yet another movie that isn't nearly as good as its subject matter promises, but then neither was the awful book that it's based on. Nor is it the terrible piece of tripe that some reviewers have dubbed it. It's ... well, it's a Ron Howard film. It does the job, it doesn't suck, and two days after you've seen it you'll have trouble remembering a single detail. It's the movie equivalent of a Sudoku puzzle, and only you can decide if that's worth the price of movie ticket.

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