The Da Vinci Code
Directed by Ron Howard
The book's a lark. The movie's an albatross.
For those who have been away from bookstores, TVs, newspapers, coffee shops, and multiplexes for the past few years, The Da Vinci Code is based on the bestselling novel by Dan Brown.
The book's sold upward of 66 million copies worldwide and, with its globetrotting tale of religious conspiracies, it's become the genesis for an entire cottage industry of books either supporting or rebuffing its claims. The Da Vinci business has even extended to tour packages so fanatics can follow in the footsteps of Robert Langdon.
Langdon's a professor of religious symbology at Harvard and currently on a European book tour. Called into action by the French police, Langdon (Tom Hanks, Apollo 13) is questioned by the no-nonsense Inspector Bezu Fache (Jean Reno, The Professional) regarding the murder of Jacques Sauniere, the curator of the Louvre.
Chillingly, a message scrawled on the parquet floor of the Louvre's Grand Gallery seems to implicate Langdon.
Able to read between the lines a little better than Fache is Agent Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou, Amelie); she's Sauniere's granddaughter and she enlists Langdon's assistance in solving the murder even as Fache zeroes in on Langdon as the chief suspect.
Together, Langdon and Neveu escape the Louvre and careen from one puzzle to the next. Their travels in solving Sauniere's murder wind up putting them on the trail of something far more significant: the legendary Holy Grail.
One Cryptex or Two?
Brown's book reads like a movie. Unfortunately, the movie doesn't do the same. It falls flat and fails to capture most of the fun of its source material.
The problems start straight away with an opening title sequence that is surprisingly generic. Given all the codes and puzzles in the storyline, something far more clever could have been done if a wee bit of thought had been put into it.
Unfortunately, the movie doesn't get much more inspired from there.
Starting off with an extremely melodramatic tone, it's hard to get into the movie's ebb and flow. For those familiar with the book, the movie will most likely feel like only part of a conversation. The intricacies of the puzzles are front and center in Brown's book; in this movie version, the puzzles are solved with nary a drop of sweat. The scenes of high drama while escaping the Louvre are trimmed, as are the tense moments in the Bank of Zurich as Sophie and Robert try to come up with the correct password to access Sauniere's account.
On a grander scale, the challenges faced on their Grail quest are cut in half. Instead of having to unlock two cryptex lockboxes, they only need to contend with one.
A cryptex is a device originally designed by Leonardo da Vinci to safely lock away important documents; they're boobytrapped such that, if one were to enter the wrong password on the cryptex dials, a vial of vinegar would shatter inside the cryptex, destroying the fragile contents. In the book, Langdon and company fret over unlocking one cryptex and after considerable hemming and hawing and second-guessing, their successful code breaking efforts yield an unwanted reward: another, smaller cryptex.
Even more disappointing, there's no sense of art appreciation to be found in Howard's adaptation.
The art and the churches were a significant part of the book's relatively colorful tapestry. Here, they're merely props ham-handedly handled by a crew that's more intent on slapping something on the screen without giving due consideration to, pardon the pun, a novel way of presenting the material.
Compounding the visual disappoint is a rather shoddy job of cinematography by Salvatore Totino (Cinderella Man). Many scenes are unnecessarily dreary and fuzzy; unfortunately for Totino, it's doubtful the projectionist can be blamed.
But that's not to say the entire movie is a loss. Given the generally sloppy handling of the story by screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (who won an Oscar for A Beautiful Mind but helped destroy a franchise with Batman & Robin), the movie still has its ambitions. Most notably, in comparison to the drab, straightforward presentation of the main storyline, flashbacks to epic scenes from 2,000 years ago are wonderfully extravagant.
If the same fervor were put into the whole movie instead of just those scattered scenes, this would have been one heck of a blockbuster.
The cast is also a bright spot in this otherwise expensive summertime disappointment.
Nearly stealing his scenes from Hanks is Ian McKellen (The Lord of the Rings trilogy) as the crutch-bound Sir Leigh Teabing. During his introductory sequence, as he explains some of the lore behind the "Original Old Wives Tale," McKellen captures the giddy-as-a-schoolboy excitement that is so desperately lacking from most of the movie.
Audrey Tautou also kicks butt (literally and figuratively) as Agent Neveu.
As for Hanks, he's not miscast as Robert Langdon; the problem instead seems to be a lack of proper direction as Hanks certainly isn't in the moment. This Langdon doesn't seem to buy into all the hooey he pontificates in his Harvard lectures and book tours. He's – dare it be said – a devil's advocate for the church; he's far more generous and sensitive to people's beliefs than the character found in the book. This Langdon says, "What matters is what you believe."
And that touches on another one of the movie's biggest problems: it almost whitewashes most of the drama and controversy that has filled newspapers and TV shows for the past several months.
Much was made of Howard refusing to put a disclaimer at the front of the movie alerting people to the fact that this is a work of fiction. Many criticized the book's controversial theory that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, others were offended by the psychotic portrayal of Opus Dei, still others were offended that an albino was the main bad guy.
Well, it's obvious now why Howard took that strong "stand" against an opening disclaimer. He's watered down the entire film. Now Inspector Fache is himself a diehard member of Opus Dei, an ultra-devout offshoot of the Catholic Church. It's a blatant concession to show that not everybody in Opus Dei is a psycho killer (not to mention that not everybody in Opus Dei is an albino).
As for that albino, Silas, Paul Bettany does a fair job of bringing him to the screen. But Bettany was much better in Master and Commander and, once again, A Beautiful Mind.
The Age of Aquarius
Part of the appeal of Dan Brown's book is that it reads a lot like a modern day Indiana Jones adventure. It's the same mix of fiction, history, and religious theory that sent Indy off on his own crusade for the Holy Grail. Granted, The Da Vinci Code is not a swashbuckling adventure, but it is a pulpy page-turner in the same tradition as those 1930s serials.
While Indy Jones would face one obstacle after another and leave audiences breathless in the process, this cinematic adventure of Robert Langdon focuses on all the wrong things at all the wrong times. Given the physical confines and time restraints of movies, The Da Vinci Code needed to be far more aggressive in its storytelling.
Amidst all the art and geographical scenery, moments of wonder virtually scream from the pages of Brown's book.
Given how other "unfilmable" books became fantastic movies by seeking out the essence of the story rather than being a literal translation, The English Patient would be one such example, it would be forgivable for Goldsman, in the name of an artistic interpretation, to whack away entire familial subplots and other themes that are lacking in this movie. But what he cut and mangled he did in the name of expedience and nothing more.
In this movie, there's no real sense of wonder until the final frames, with an overwhelmed Langdon down on his knees and the score finally sweeping people into the moment.
• Originally published at MovieHabit.com.