May 17, 2006

“Da Vinci Code” an unwieldy, bloated puzzle

By Kirk Honeycutt

CANNES (Hollywood Reporter) - For those who hate Dan
Brown's best-selling symbology thriller "The Da Vinci Code,"
the eagerly awaited and much-hyped movie version beautifully
exposes all its flaws and nightmares of logic.

For those who love the book's page-turning intensity, the
movie version heightens Brown's mischievous interweaving of
genre action, historical facts and utter fictions. In other
words, for those who bear witness to the film "The Da Vinci
Code," what you see depends on what you believe. Kinda like
religion itself.

Strictly as a movie and ignoring the current swirl of
controversy no amount of studio money could ever buy, the Ron
Howard-directed film features one of Tom Hanks' more remote,
even wooden performances in a role that admittedly demands all
the wrong sort of things from a thriller protagonist; an only
slightly more animated performance from his French co-star,
Audrey Tautou; and polished Hollywood production values where
camera cranes sweep viewers up to God-like points of view and
famous locations and deliciously sinister interiors heighten
tension where the movie threatens to turn into a historical

The movie really only catches fire at the midway point,
when Ian McKellen hobbles on the scene as the story's
Sphinx-like Sir Leigh Teabing. Here is the one actor having fun
with his role and playing a character rather than a piece to a

True believers and those who want to understand what all
the fuss is about will jam cinemas worldwide in the coming
weeks in sufficient numbers so as to fulfill probably even the
most optimistic projections of Sony execs. But the movie is so
drenched in dialogue musing over arcane mythological and
historical lore and scenes grow so static that even camera
movement can't disguise the dramatic inertia. Such sins could
cut into those rosy projections.

For those who vacationed on Mars for the past few years,
"The Da Vinci Code" is the second of Brown's thrillers starring
Harvard professor of iconography and religious art Robert
Langdon (Hanks). The books seek to put contemporary ticking
bombs into dusty historical disputes. In this one, the murder
of a highly respected curator in the Louvre in Paris, where
Langdon fortuitously happens to be while on a speaking
engagement, em-broils the professor in a race against time to
locate nothing less than the Holy Grail.

His companion is police cryptologist Sophie Neveu (Tautou),
and his seeming nemesis is bulldog police captain Bezu Fache
(Jean Reno, largely wasted), who for no plausible reason
believes Langdon to be the killer. But other potential villains
loom: Jet-setting Bishop Aringarosa (Alfred Molina), from the
ultraconservative Opus Dei branch of Catholicism, and Silas, an
albino-monk assassin (Paul Bettany).

The plot is driven not by its characters but by solutions
of puzzles, the breaking of codes and a dazzling display of
historical knowledge. Which works decently enough in the novel
but puts the brakes to all screen action. Hanks' character is
far too reactive and contemplative for a movie action hero, and
the cliched nature of those drifting in and out of his orbit
hits home with jolting simplicity.

Screen adapter Akiva Goldsman has definitely punched up
Brown's third act. He has actually improved on the novel -- at
least for those who buy into the historical controversy that
Jesus left behind a royal French bloodline -- by giving the
story a broader, more fulfilling payoff than the novel. If one
doesn't buy into that controversy, then the story becomes just
that much more forced and corrupt. (The final revelation
produced a few titters in the first press audience to see the

Howard and Goldsman can't do much, though, with mostly
colorless characters designed around idiosyncrasies and weird
scholarly talents -- sort of academic X-Men -- rather than
flesh-and-blood personalities. No chemistry exists between the
hero and heroine, and motivation remains a troubling sore
point. Why does the innocent professor flee? Why is Sophie so
eager to help? Why is anyone doing what he does when so many
characters and subplots turn into red herrings?

Howard proves a smart choice as a director because his
middlebrow tastes inspire him to go for broad strokes and
forget making any real sense of these logic-busters. Salvatore
Totino's glistening cinematography, Allan Cameron's assured
production design and Hans Zimmer's driving score are
definitely pluses. Yet "Da Vinci" never rises to the level of a
guilty pleasure. Too much guilt. Not enough pleasure.