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Da Vinci Code, The

Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 05/20/06 22:59:20

"So dull the con of Brown."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

Dan Brown's mega-bestseller 'The Da Vinci Code' presents some fairly radical ideas inside a standard puzzle-box thriller. To make the medicine go down even smoother, the film version reunites the whitebread couple Tom Hanks and director Ron Howard, both of whom you would trust to help your grandmother across the street.

Their presence guarantees a safe and unobjectionable evening at the movies. What it doesn't guarantee is any excitement. In 1993, director Sydney Pollack made the dire mistake of adapting John Grisham's potboiler The Firm as a shadowy and serious melodrama, and Ron Howard has duplicated that error here: Whereas Brown's novel has been described as dumb fun, the film is no fun at all.

Sporting a ghastly medium-long haircut that suggests a man with little time to look in the mirror, Hanks mainly phones it in as noted symbologist Robert Langdon, who becomes a suspect in the murder of a Louvre curator. Langdon inspects the corpse, and the elaborate self-inscribed codes and symbols on and near the corpse, and concludes that it means something. But what? Ultimately, the plot's litany of hidden messages leads to shocking evidence that Jesus Christ was not the son of God, that he married Mary Magdalene, and that the church was supposed to be pagan and goddess-centered, not monotheistic and paternalistic. Have I lost you yet? There's also a self-flagellating albino assassin (Paul Bettany) who kills people on orders from the ultra-strict Catholic sect Opus Dei, which wants to keep that evidence secret at all costs. Still with me?

Any movie with a skulking albino assassin begs for campy, self-aware treatment, but Howard and scripter Akiva Goldsman serve it all up straight-faced. The studio has corralled what used to be called an international cast -- Audrey Tautou, from Amelie, plays a "police cryptographer" who helps Langdon; Sir Ian McKellen limps into the film as some sort of historical expert and delivers great chunks of exposition with wry aplomb; Jean Reno and Jurgen Prochnow (oddly playing a Frenchman -- did Howard decide that two French film stars were enough?) turn up; Alfred Molina chews some scenery as a shady bishop. They all look lost in the wind produced by all the dead-serious theologizing and philosophizing. The Da Vinci Code bids fair to be the talkiest, least engaging number-one box-office hit since, well, The Firm.

Flailing to make Brown's art history cinematic, Howard inserts grainy black-and-white flashbacks, sets our heroes wandering through a town square filled with murky historical figures, and repeats his A Beautiful Mind gimmick of visualizing the lead's unique way of deciphering numbers. For the most part, though, you could safely close your eyes and get the same experience you would from listening to the audiobook. Your eyes may close anyway, though, as the characters scurry around, doing Google searches aboard a bus or escaping in the backs of vans or cars. An action director Ron Howard is not, Exhibit A being the incomprehensibly staged and edited car chase backwards through a crowded Paris street. Howard made his name in comedies, and The Da Vinci Code plays to none of his strengths -- aside from a few bits from McKellen, there isn't a laugh (not intentional, anyway) to be found in the film's yawning two hours and twenty-six minutes.

Not having read the book (I gave up on it after about fifteen pages, insulted by the fifth-grade reading level it appeared to be pitched at), and having no particular team to root for in the great theological Super Bowl, I approached The Da Vinci Code solely as a movie. I wasn't concerned with how faithful an adaptation it was, or how credible its thesis was; the many recent magazine cover stories on the alleged flaws in Brown's premise have gone ignored by me. I just don't care. The movie failed to make me care. At the very least, what The Da Vinci Code says about Jesus and the Church makes for fun speculation, and when Ian McKellen comes on and shows the supposed hidden messages in "The Last Supper" the movie comes close to being the cracking good yarn it should've been.

'The Da Vinci Code' needed a rousing, controversial director like Oliver Stone, who would've stirred things up and shaken some foundations. What we get here is very much in the Ron Howard mold -- a movie scared of its own shadow, afraid to stand up for its beliefs, and apparently deathly afraid to be entertaining.

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