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The Da Vinci Code   D

Columbia Pictures / Imagine Entertainment

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Ron Howard
Writer: Akiva Goldsman (based on the book by Dan Brown)
Cast: Tom Hanks, Audrey Tautou, Ian McKellen, Jean Reno, Paul Bettany, Alfred Molina, Jürgen Prochnow, Jean-Yves Berteloot.

Review by Rob Vaux

A colleague of mine recently observed that of all the words one could use to describe The Da Vinci Code, "boring" would probably be the most surprising. "Silly," we were ready for. "Ludicrous," "far-fetched," and "half-baked," sure. A disposable summer movie based on a potboiler bestseller, directed with milquetoast competence by Ron Howard and starring the blandly likable Tom Hanks -- yeah, we could handle a thick slice of cheese with that dish. But boring? Turgid and slothful and... and boring?! Even those who feared the worst would never believe such a thing: that an event picture of this magnitude could turn out to be so incredibly dull.

And yet dull it most certainly is: two and a half hours of carefully staged, painstakingly crafted dull. It's a concrete brick of Dull. It's a six-month-old Dull fruitcake. No one can dent this thing. No one. Look at the cast they've assembled: talented performers more than capable of transcending subpar material. And yet they bounce off The Da Vinci Code like pebbles against a bulldozer. Hanks, Paul Bettany, Audrey Tautou -- Audrey Tautou, one of the most vibrant, intoxicating actresses of recent years, reduced to a po-faced mannequin by the mealy-mouthed dirge of a script -- all of them are powerless before the monolith. Not even Ian McKellen can bring it to life... and when Ian McKellen throws in the towel, you know the difficulties are too large to fix.

The obvious culprit is the source material -- Dan Brown's mega-bestseller that posits a global conspiracy lying at the heart of the Catholic Church. I haven't read the book, so I can't speak to its quality, but by all accounts, the film stays faithful to it... which may not be a good thing. Hanks plays Robert Langdon, a world-class symbologist summoned to the Louvre one dark Paris night to lend his expertise to a murder investigation. A man lies dead on the gallery floor, his limbs spread in an imitation of Da Vinci's famous Vitruvian Man. Other clues lie nearby, apparently produced by the victim as he lay dying. They point the way to a vast secret that a sinister group of Catholic hardliners is trying to keep under wraps -- a secret so dangerous that they'll happily kill anyone who gets a whiff of it.

The film's trouble starts there, for when seen by the cold light of day, this secret simply isn't as shocking as it should be. I can't reveal the particulars, of course, but the crux of it involves facts that may cast doubt on Christ's divinity. And yet nothing about them suggests that Christ is not divine: only that the Church may have mixed up some of the specifics about his life. That may be enough for certain fanatics to kill for, but shake civilization to its core, as the film suggests? Please. If a bunch of priests molesting little boys couldn't crack the Vatican's foundation, then a few millennia-old fabrications won't make a bit of difference.

The path Langdon takes to that revelation doesn't improve matters much, adopting a clue-chase-clue-chase structure as laughably simplistic as an Encyclopedia Brown story. The script marries basic religious history with absurdly trivial hooks, allowing Langdon and police cryptologist Sophie Neveu (Tautou) to follow the mystery to its presumably soul-searing destination while various flavors of shadowy figures (and one freaky strange albino played by Bettany) plot to do them in. The trinkets and hints have a gimmicky faux-cleverness to them, aiming for accessibility rather than anything truly smart or challenging. The historical details are much the same, trumpeting relatively obvious facts with the smug authority of a 9th grader fresh back from the museum. Considering that they're more or less the purpose of the exercise, their crudity is supremely distressing.

The source of such trouble likely lies with the novel, however, and Brown's fans may have fewer problems with its undemanding brainteasers than I did. Howard, however, cannot sufficiently bridge the gap between the printed word and the filmed image. Tiny details, for example, can take on tremendous emotional scope when presented in writing. Small knickknacks attain great significance in the imagination of the reader, and throwaway clues seem to loom much larger in our mind's eye. Similarly, expository information can be delivered as dialogue in a novel, since a character explaining it to us has as much resonance as the author composing a physical description. Neither of those elements will function on-screen as they are, however. A box that everyone coos over is still just a box, and a bunch of actors -- even good ones like these -- standing around and talking about plot points are stiflingly dreary to absorb. Howard and his team seem to be aware of the problem, and attempt to correct it with flashy visual cues (often akin to their work in A Beautiful Mind). But Akiva Goldsman's screenplay saddles the cast with the worst sort of perfunctory exposition, coupled with characterizations as thin as stick figures. None of the people here are the least bit interesting, and the things they have to say, while infused with solemn weight, have all the excitement of a tax audit. Howard provides no relief for them during the few moments of genuine action, which lie as flat and lifeless as the rest of the film. Only Hans Zimmer's score approaches the requisite sense of energy, and with so little to play against, you'd swear he composed it for another movie.

And all of it just goes on and on... trudging from scene to scene like survivors of the Bataan Death March. Even the climax provides no respite, dribbling off in classic shaggy-dog fashion while Zimmer's soaring orchestra tries madly to hold our attention. By then, of course, it's far too late. For all the hype, for all the money, for all the controversy involved (and seriously, protesters, why are you getting upset over the "blasphemous nature" of a bubblegum wrapper like this?), The Da Vinci Code lays nothing but a big fat egg. Its funereal plod will exhaust the patience of even the most indulgent moviegoer, and its marquee status can't invest it with the barest semblance of genuine appeal. In many ways, hammy melodrama would have been an improvement. It might not have made a better movie, but at least it would have kept us awake.

Review published 05.19.2006.

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