Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Da Vinci Code


Broken Early

The 2006 summer movie season is in full swing now, with the hotly anticipated worldwide release of The Da Vinci Code now at our doorstep. Millions of people have read the book, which involves a religious conspiracy theory that disrupts the divinity of Jesus Christ and threatens to change the face of Christianity as we know it. Apparently it’s a pretty gripping book (I haven’t read it, maintaining my literary zero status), but this movie version, which pretends to be a thriller, just isn’t.

Renowned symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is visiting Paris on the lecture circuit. He is summoned by police captain Fache (Jean Reno) to a bizarre murder scene which just occurred in the Louvre. Police cryptologist Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou) soon appears, warning Langdon that he is in danger and must flee or end up in jail. After deciphering some of the murder scenes’ clues, both Robert and Sophie are on the run. Aided by Langdon’s friend Leigh (Ian McKellen), they learn what could be the biggest cover up in human history.

Despite the popularity of the subject matter (which I’m sure will translate into mega box office bucks), the story has some inherent flaws that trip it up before anything really gets going. At the very beginning of the film, the murder victim is found stripped naked, posed like Da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man”, and has a bloody star carved in his chest. The shocker comes when we learn “he did this to himself!” Huh? Most thrillers offer preposterous developments, but it’s quite a stretch to believe a man who is shot in the chest will not only write cryptic messages all over the Louvre, but still have the wherewithal to create the ultimate performance art piece out of himself.

Another problem is that we never believe that Hanks’ Langdon is in any real kind of jeopardy. Supposedly he is implicated by what the dead guy wrote on the floor (and for other reasons we learn later), but it doesn’t wash. As a result, there is no suspense, despite what the language of the visuals keep trying to tell us. This lack of tension causes things to drag, and for a two-and-a-half hour movie, this is not good news.

I have the feeling that with author Dan Brown acting as executive producer, he had way to much say over Akiva Goldsman’s screenplay. Movies adapted from a published work should be their own animal, allowed to stretch and breathe within the medium. The Da Vinci Code feels like a long novel, complete with several epilogues that all should have been cut to tighten up the story.

What works the best, is the fascinating subject matter. The film is a clue fest, constantly weaving history, theory, and art into a support for the story’s interesting conclusions. I’m not saying I believed any of it, but it was compelling nonetheless. I really liked the scene where McKellan’s character dissected Da Vinci’s painting “The Last Supper” in Zapruder Film style to prove his point.

The actors are all solid with Tautou (A Very Long Engagement) and McKellen (X-Men: The Last Stand) stealing most of the attention away from star Hanks (The Terminal). The waifish Tautou is always fun to watch, and always amazes how much she can emote from that teeny frame. Her best scene is where she confronts the murderous monk Silas (Paul Bettany), and practically froths at the mouth in restrained rage. McKellen is even better, bringing dignity and intelligence to yet another role. He also gets the best one-liners, and seems to really enjoy delivering them with tongue firmly in cheek.

Director Ron Howard is a good filmmaker. He’s made good films before (Apollo 13 is one of my favorites) , and I have no doubt he will again. Just don’t expect much from The Da Vinci Code. I didn’t, and was still disappointed.

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