The Da Vinci Code (review)

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Jesus H. Christ in a Hollywood Thriller

Think of all the great men throughout entertainment history who have sought the Holy Grail: King Arthur. Indiana Jones. MacGyver. Robert Langdon?

See, it just doesn’t work. Ya want larger-than-life characters chasing around the globe seeking things like mysterious and powerful ancient relics and the meaning of life and cool shit like that. Tom Hanks? Not so much. Not to impugn Tom Hanks, whom I think is kinda sexy in a geeky kinda way, but he ain’t, you know, heroic. He doesn’t inspire fantasies of adventure and danger and you just can’t imagine him saying something like, “It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage.” Forget Indy: Robert Langdon isn’t even Henry Jones Senior (though, if you watch closely in the beginning of the film, he does seem to have the elder Dr. Jones’s grail diary in his possession).

Now, granted, The Da Vinci Code isn’t trying to be Indiana Jones 4. But that’s kinda the problem. It’s like if you made a romantic comedy without any of that pointless and unnecessary kissing in it. Here we have a nonstop chase across Europe to uncover a secret men have died for, have killed for, a secret that if it became known could cause radical social upheaval — this isn’t my opinion, but the movie’s — a secret so stunning blah blah blah… and sitting through The Da Vinci Code is like sitting through a lecture. A potentially interesting lecture, maybe, about comparative mythology and how paganism was a major influence on Christianity and the untold history of the Vatican and so on. A lecture offered by, you know, geeky-sexy Tom Hanks (The Polar Express, The Ladykillers), sure. But still: the whole endeavor keeps insisting that’s it’s all very exciting and dramatic and important, when it’s more sorta inadvertently cozy and faux intellectual and surprisingly passionless.

I mean, if you want to make a movie about supersmart guys arguing about obscure shit they love, then yes! Do that. The only moments when Code really springs to any kind of life, actually, is when Langdon pops in on an old friend, another scholar of Christian mythology named Sir Leigh Teabing and played, with his usual cerebral insouciance, by Ian McKellen (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, X2: X-Men United), and they yell at each other a bit about who’s sitting next to Jesus in Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” and whether Mary Magdalene was in fact a prostitute or was actually Jesus’ wife and what Emperor Constantine and his lot really got up to at the Council of Nicea. Cool. It might sound oxymoronic, but this is pretty much the most exciting part of the movie, and I don’t mean that sarcastically: there’s real emotion here, genuine enthusiasm, and, for a little while, it’s infectious.

The movie doesn’t seem to realize that, though, and the infectiousness disappears in the long sequences of car chases and gun battles and anonymous priests in fancy robes sitting around conference tables plotting intrigue and more vehicular mayhem and more shooting. Director Ron Howard (Cinderella Man, The Missing) and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (I, Robot, A Beautiful Mind), they don’t see this as an intellectual adventure — all that thinky stuff is just getting in the way of the “real” “action,” and they limit the thinky stuff to the bare minimum they can get away with in order to keep the audience — most of which, Christians included, will have no fucking idea what the Council of Nicea was — from being completely bewildered.

And so, then: okay. We’re meant to take this as Hollywood popcorn. Fine. So how the hell can Our Hero Langdon traipse around hopelessly romantic locales like book-filled estates in the French countryside and the tombs of ancient English churches with an adorable and brainy French chick and never once look at her like he wants to smooch her? C’mon! I’d kiss Audrey Tautou in that situation. Is the man human, or not? Is the man Hollywood, or not? If yer not gonna satisfy our intellectual needs, Howard-and-Goldsman, at least give us some smooching. We get multiple scenes of the crazy-as-a-loon assassin-monk Silas (Paul Bettany: Wimbledon, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World) literally flagellating himself for the audience’s perverse titillation, but no smooching.

Tautou’s (A Very Long Engagement, Dirty Pretty Things) cop cryptologist Sophie Neveu has a bit of angst and agita in her background, enough to give her a smidge of driving force to propel her through the story, but Langdon? Perhaps it’s ironic, or perhaps it’s appropriate, but the central character in this story about codes and puzzles is a cipher himself, albeit of the nonentity kind. (This isn’t Hanks’s fault — he’s just given nothing to work with.) The mysteries and upsets of Sophie’s past are connected to this tale of ancient secret societies and the roots of modern Christianity, but the one humanizing aspect of Langdon, the one thing that makes him human — he suffers from an almost paralyzing claustrophobia — has absolutely nothing to do with anything: it is merely the one thing that makes him a person rather than a narrator, as if Dan Brown picked that Achilles heel — and a very minor one, at that, at least as concerns the story — from a hat.

And all the many problems with The Da Vinci Code, the movie, spring from the fact that it is a pretty faithful adaptation of Brown’s novel. My overwhelming reaction, when I read the book a couple years ago, was that it would make a great movie: Brown’s prose is atrocious, but his plot was fast-moving and full of people explaining all sorts of stuff to one another… and those people had no pesky inner lives that are hard to depict visually. But that reaction masked, I think, some of the other problems, from a perspective of effective storytelling, of the book: Most of the villain types, for instance, have little motivation except that they’re the bad guys and hence must do bad things.

Mostly, though, The Da Vinci Code, the book, is a barely fictionalized Comparative Mythology for Dummies, and so the movie is, too. Which isn’t entirely a bad thing — more people need to be exposed to many of the ideas that prop up this tale, and as popular as the book as been, still more people will see the movie version. If you already know who Mithras is, though, or have heard of such ideas as “the divine feminine,” you’ll find that much that is exciting about The Da Vinci Code to uninformed audiences will leave you less than thrilled.

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