With its tense action, cliffhanger chapters, and simple prose, it has been written that Dan Brown’s obscenely popular bestselling novel “The Da Vinci Code” reads just like a movie. If that is the case, then somebody forgot to tell Oscar-winning director Ron Howard.
On the printed page, Brown’s thin character development and penchant for unlikely escapes are easier to forgive when the action is moving at breakneck speed. That rarely happens in Howard’s movie adaptation, save for one frustratingly-edited car chase sequence that seems to skip forward several seconds at a time and is impossible to keep your eye on. So what we are left with is a slower and more frustrating film, one that has barely enough time for its labyrinthine twists, much less any flesh-and-blood characters.
|Reverently nudged. Not shaken, or stirred.|
In fact, translating Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (a reserved Tom Hanks) to the screen only seems to point out what a complete bore he really is. I understand why Hanks was cast in the role, but putting a star of his magnitude into such a thankless position only points out that he is not the true “star” of the story.
It’s the conspiracies, stupid. Unfortunately, what reads like a rollercoaster now plays like a booby-trapped scavenger hunt. The movie of “The Da Vinci Code” only seems to amplify the problems in the book that were easier to overlook while reading and are now harder to forgive when transferred literally to the screen.
In the novel, when Brown digresses into one of many far-out yet fascinating, history-rebuking theories, there is time to go deeper and explain useful background information. A film that’s already two and a half hours long (and feels like it) simply doesn’t have that luxury. Howard and Oscar-winning screenwriter Akiva Goldsman are stymied by the prospect of letting loose with enough historical detail to give the actions of Langdon and police cryptologist Sophie Neveu (a reserved Audrey Tautou) more personal weight. Instead, they offer quick montages and cheesy soundbites to clue us into their quest’s importance. Too many of these flashback sequences resemble the scores of “Unlocking the Da Vinci Code” TV re-enactments that are currently smeared all over the TV like a wad of brie cheese.
One outstanding scene towards the end, however, is a stunner and serves as a sad indicator of what could have been with a more visionary team behind the movie (or at least one willing to take more chances with such revered material). As Langdon and Neveu enter a London church for one of their final clues, Langdon describes the scene of Sir Isaac Newton’s funeral. As he speaks, the ghosts of those 18th century mourners appear all around them. It’s an elegiac way of connecting the past and present and making “dead” history come alive.
Oddly, because Hanks and Tautou spend most of their time cracking obscure codes in an instant and moving on, the small moments devoted to albino mad monk Silas and eccentric millionaire Leigh Teabing (played by the markedly un-reserved Paul Bettany and Ian McKellan, respectively) are the only other ones worth a scrap of emotion. Silas’ unfortunate past and tragic blind faith has an interesting enough duality and works well as a side-plot, and McKellan seems to be the only person having fun in the entire film.
Before the film’s release, the controversy was all about the church’s reaction to the fictional revelations about Jesus and what Langdon refers to as the “sacred feminine.” That terminology is mentioned from the start, but barely approached later when it becomes the central focus of the pair’s investigation. Just when the idea could use a little backup and begins to become halfway believable, it’s on to another beautiful landmark for some more dreary prattle.
Even if Vanna is your name and puzzles are your game, there is little to unravel in “The Da Vinci Code.” Riddles are introduced and solved so quickly that there is no time for suspense. We know another one is right around the corner, and we know nothing will happen to our unlikely heroes. Which, in that breeze of a best-selling book, were somehow easier to overlook. The only controversy people will be talking about after this weekend is how Howard and Goldsman could mess up the thrilling book that everyone falsely accused of “reading like a movie.”