Religious fanatics who've made such a fuss over Ron Howard's new film, it turns out, may have a point. I found it shocking, too. Not because it's blasphemous. Because it's shockingly silly, tedious, preposterous and talky. Can it really be just a year since Howard gave us Cinderella Man? Talk about a fall from grace.
I haven't read Dan Brown's record-shattering bestseller and, now that I've seen the screen adaptation of it, I am similarly shocked that so many people have read it. This is what all the hubbub's been about? So, when I say The Da Vinci Code is an almost unwatchably ridiculous movie, I don't mean that it doesn't do Brown's book justice. I wouldn't know. I'm just saying that, as a motion picture, it is an ungodly mess.
Almost as soon as the opening credits have rolled, the two-and-a-half-hour torrent of comic-book-level nonsense commences. After-hours in the Louvre, a sinister albino monk shoots an old man, the museum's curator. Gasping his final breaths, he somehow manages to hide a safety-deposit-box key behind a large, unwieldy painting, scribble anagrams next to other works of art in some sort of invisible ink, scrawl an encrypted message containing a scrambled numerical code on the institution's floor, take off his clothes, arrange himself in a pose out of a famous da Vinci work, and cover his body with symbols drawn in his own blood. Oh, yeah, and leave a secret message for the young woman he took in and raised after the death of her parents.
With that much life still left in him, you'd think the guy might have simply picked up a phone and called for help. Then he could have just told everybody what he needed to the next day from the comfort of a hospital bed, instead of leaving a ludicrous slew of clues.
But in this story, apparently, anything worth doing is worth doing the hard way. Charged with solving the crime, a French police officer played by Jean Reno does what any detective faced with a brutal homicide would do: He brings in a Harvard professor of symbology -- who just happens to be in town at a book signing -- for questioning. Tom Hanks stars as Robert Langdon. Shortly thereafter, he is introduced to another officer played by Audrey Tautou. I'm not sure which I found harder to swallow -- that she turns out to be the dead man's granddaughter, or that her job title is "police cryptographer."
The next thing you know, Hanks and Tautou are on the run together, pursued at any given moment by the police, the albino monk (Paul Bettany), a bloodthirsty bank employee, a double-dealing historian and/or the members of various shadow sects dedicated to guarding an ancient secret that, if revealed, could call certain fundamental Christian tenets into question. It may take Hanks and Tautou the better part of the film to solve a series of puzzles and uncover this world-shaking secret, but virtually everyone who buys a ticket will go in already knowing it, so I'm not sure where the suspense is supposed to come from.
Ian McKellen costars as a Holy Grail expert who offers the pair a safe haven as well as a nifty audio-visual presentation that lays the "secret" out for them: Jesus, the story posits, married Mary Magdalene and raised a family, and the bloodline survives to the present day. Or will, at least, until some maniacal albino monk or shadow society member discovers his or her identity.
The idea that Christ's direct flesh-and-blood descendent is walking around wearing a bull's eye is sort of intriguing, I suppose, though the movie doesn't do much with it. The whole business about Mary Magdalene and the Savior of the human race settling down and bringing up a brood, on the other hand, is too been-there-done-that to have much impact. Doesn't anyone remember Nikos Kazantzakis' The Last Temptation of Christ, which came out more than a half-century ago, or the movie Martin Scorsese made based on it in 1988? Mary, Jesus, kids, the whole deal.
As I watched Howard's film, the whole nefarious secret-cabal-within-the-Catholic-Church business took on an increasingly familiar tone, too, and then I remembered a film I'd seen in 2003. The Order starred Heath Ledger as a priest who uncovers a nefarious secret cabal operating within the Catholic Church. Combine key elements of Last Temptation with those in The Order and you've pretty much got The Da Vinci Code. Only, you know, without all the puzzles.
Or the staggering deluge of dialogue. Howard and writer Akiva Goldsman attempt to cram in way too much of the book and its historical underpinnings. As a result, Hanks' character comes off as the kind of know-it-all chatterbox who'd stop while bullets zipped overhead to give you a lecture on the Knights Templar or the origin of Opus Dei. I defended the actor's choices in recent flops like The Terminal and The Ladykillers, but, I'm sorry, even Tom Hanks can't redeem this blabby, big-screen baloney.
That people as gifted as Howard, Hanks and Goldsman (who also wrote the scripts for A Beautiful Mind and Cinderella Man) could produce a picture this busily trivial is, in fact, The Da Vinci Code's most confounding puzzle. They're responsible for some of the most memorable movies of the past quarter-century, but, faced with the challenge of bringing Brown's theological brainteaser to the big screen, none of them seems to have had a clue.