Film Reviews: Wednesday, May 24, 2006
The Da Vinci Code
Starring Tom Hanks, Audrey Tautou, and Ian McKellen. Directed by Ron Howard. Written by Akiva Goldsman, based on Dan Brown’s novel. Rated PG-13.
Cure for the Common Code

Faith isn’t enough to keep the Da Vinci thing from talkiness and tedium.


This review is late, I know. As has been reported elsewhere, the studio was unusually tardy in screening The Da Vinci Code for critics and even for theater owners, who typically get to see movies before press. I wasn’t given a chance to see it in time for last week’s issue, so I did what the rest of you did and paid for my ticket this past weekend. Other movie critics turn bitter when they have to do this. I don’t, but then again, I’m getting reimbursed.

It’s easy to see why Dan Brown’s novel became a best-seller despite its practically unreadable prose. Otherwise indistinguishable from various other literary thrillers with exotic settings, the book featured a wacky and byzantine religious-themed conspiracy plot built around some appealingly subversive notions and presented with enough pseudo-scholarship to sound halfway plausible.

Director Ron Howard and collaborating screenwriter Akiva Goldsman’s critical mistake in adapting the novel is giving too much weight to the conspiracy theory. It doesn’t stand up to serious academic scrutiny, it isn’t presented in the film cohesively enough to make much sense to people who haven’t read the book, and, most importantly, it impedes the plot and pace of the story. In an early scene in the Louvre, French cryptologist Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou) engineers a distraction to help Harvard professor and murder suspect Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) escape from the police, but the two then stick around the museum dissecting clues as if the cops aren’t rushing back to find them. This structural problem is inherited from the book, but you’d expect a purveyor of popcorn entertainment to fix this. Heck, even hacks like Brett Ratner or Michael Bay, who don’t have half Howard’s talent behind the camera, would have instinctively smoothed this over. Howard and Goldsman display too much reverence for the source, as is typical of Hollywood’s approach to literary blockbusters, and the result is a tedious flick that expostulates when it should be whizzing by.

You know what else? The movie doesn’t look good. Cinematographer Salvatore Totino has done all right in the past with squalor (in Howard’s Cinderella Man and The Missing), but he doesn’t know how to do splendor. The movie was shot in several real locations such as the Louvre, and it could have used some awe-inspiring visuals to go with the grandeur of its themes. Instead, the filmmakers mistake poor lighting for mystery and fail to squeeze any suspense out of the ambience. The cast looks like they’re all on Prozac, except for Ian McKellen as the eccentric English scholar who aids the heroes’ quest. This actor knows how to comport himself in stuff like this, and his hamming is the only remotely enjoyable thing about the movie. How bitterly disappointing that the one aspect of the book that you’d expect Hollywood to get right — its ability to make you turn the pages in hopes of finding out what happens next — is exactly where the movie fails so completely.

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