Hardy Plumbing
May 24, 2006

The Good The Bad The Ugly

The Da Vinci Code

Withheld from critics until three days before opening, The Da Vinci Code reportedly unspooled simultaneously across the globe last week: The New York press had its first screening Tuesday afternoon, while the press corps in Cannes saw it at around the same time (although it was after dark there). What this synchronicity was intended to accomplish is far from clear — perhaps it was Columbia Pictures' way of being true to the novel, of creating its own worldwide conspiracy.

Jet-lagged and understandably miffed at being jerked around, having flown in the night before on red-eye flights, the Cannes audience staggered out to declare the movie a disaster — maybe even one on par with screenwriter Akiva Goldsman's Batman & Robin. Seen stateside, though, The Da Vinci Code amounts to a big shrug.

What exactly were critics expecting? The novel Ron Howard was adapating — or travestying? — was no Scarlet Letter. (Complaints about Howard's excess solemnity seem churlish, given that the story turns on nothing less than "the greatest cover-up in human history.") Flattering its readers with allusions to Da Vinci, the Knights Templar, Isaac Newton, and I.M. Pei, Dan Brown's bestseller was essentially a potboiler stuffed with data — not to mention killer locations (the Louvre! Westminster Abbey!), daring escapes (via airplane and Smart Car!), and even a kind of built-in crosscutting in its chapter structure.

Filled with copious research undermined by annoyingly staccato prose, The Da Vinci Code was a relentlessly mechanical book. Every five pages, one mystery would be solved and another would be revealed. Despite the pretense of a whodunit, Brown introduced new historical and religious arcana as needed; the descriptions of artwork may be accurate, but it was impossible for readers — at least those without a working knowledge of the Priory of Scion — to truly play along.

The novel was already a movie in print — and now, lended a little more credence than it deserves by that old pro Howard, it's a movie again. The chief challenge in adapting the book is circumventing the torrent of art-historical info that drives the plot, but Goldsman (who also scripted A Beautiful Mind and Cinderella Man for Howard) merely trims some fat and makes a couple of token attempts to stave off controversy. One plot thread has been risibly elaborated, perhaps to appease the protesting devout; there's also a new ploy to create sympathy for a character — Jean Reno's Parisian chief of police — who hardly needs to be sympathetic.

There is, of course, a great deal of exposition, and the movie's excitement level rises and falls depending on the actor charged with each scene's particular lecture-demonstration. Preposterous in long hair, Tom Hanks, as popular Harvard "symbologist" Robert Langdon, seems unconvinced by his own semiotic interpretations. Audrey Tautou's Sophie Neveu, supposedly an experienced cryptologist, is now a second banana — an odd, retrograde change for a story that puts so much emphasis on the "sacred feminine." As the albino Silas, Paul Bettany puts on a Spanish accent that's too studied by half.

Only Ian McKellen, as eccentric, be-crutched historian Leigh Teabing, achieves an agreeable level of ham-miness — his château is pre-equipped with visual aids for deconstructing The Last Supper, just in case visitors should stop by after midnight to inquire about the Holy Grail. Despite the appearance of substance and the complaints of impiety, that's the level of absurdity at which both the movie and the book are pitched: Think The Goonies for Advanced Placement students.

And the film version is, in painting terms, less a fresh canvas than a brush-up job, with Howard and Goldsman dabbing over Brown's outlines. The result isn't pristine, but it's good enough for the tourists.

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