Da Vinci Code

There's no code to decipher. Da Vinci is a dud — a dreary, droning, dull-witted adaptation of Dan Brown's religioso detective story that sold 50 million copies worldwide. Conservative elements in the Catholic Church are all worked up over a plot that questions Christ's divinity and posits a Vatican conspiracy to cover up Jesus Christ's alleged marriage to Mary Magdalene and to drive all things feminine from the church. Here's the sure way to quiet the protesters: Have them see the movie. They will fall into a stupor in minutes. I know it bored me breathless.

The only true controversy that remains is where you stand on the long hair Tom Hanks grew to play Robert Langdon, the Harvard prof who specializes in symbols (the movie — like the book — is loaded with them). Hint: Keep your eye on the Holy Grail. There's been a grisly murder at the Louvre, which plays itself, by the way, and looks lovely. Not lovely is Silas (Paul Bettany), a crazed albino monk who'll whack a nun to get his hands on the Grail — that is, when he's not whipping himself with a fervor unseen since Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. Bettany's rabid overacting seems to inspire Hanks to take the opposite tack. Hanks remains disturbingly unruffled, even when he is framed for the monk's crimes and goes on the run from France to England with Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou), a French cryptologist whose curator grandfather was the murder victim.

Got that? Didn't think so. But you will as the plot plods on. Da Vinci's Mona Lisa offers the first of many clues as the couple tries to evade French police captain Bezu Fache (Jean Reno), a member of Opus Dei, a conservative Catholic sect with a hidden agenda. Vatican spokesman Archbishop Angelo Amato has called the book "stridently anti-Christian." Hanks, in an interview, came closer to the mark by calling the fictional story "hooey" that is not meant to be taken seriously.

How to apportion that blame for the movie's inertia? Start with screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (an inexplicable Oscar winner for A Beautiful Mind), who manages to eradicate every ounce of suspense, spirituality and erotic fire from Brown's novel. Point the finger at director Ron Howard (also an inexplicable Oscar winner for A Beautiful Mind) for playing it so safe that the film feels embalmed. The acting is either hammy (Bettany) or nonexistent (Tautou, so good in Amelie, so charmless here). Even the great Ian McKellen, cast as Holy Grail expert Sir Leigh Teabing, is reduced to nonstop bloviating, only alleviated by the occasional hint of mischief in his eyes. Instead of dialogue, Goldsman has written huge globs of exposition. Sir Leigh will yak about the concept of the "sacred feminine." Sophie will say, "I don't follow." And Sir Leigh will pick up the thread with a slide show that reveals a mystery woman visible in Da Vinci's The Last Supper. And Robert will add to the blabfest. And so on and on and on.

One of the rules of solid suspense filmmaking is: Show, don't tell. Howard's film is all tell with a few car chases thrown in. In rough, grainy flashbacks he reveals glimpses of the church's bloody history. There's even a second of a sex ritual involving Sophie's grandfather, but Howard turns the camera away as if he's prying. Has a controversial novel ever taken a more cautious journey to the screen? The book's vulgar energy evaporates in holy smoke.

Also missing in action is the romantic spark between Robert and Sophie that Brown provided in the novel. All that Hanks gives Tautou is a fatherly hug and a kiss on the forehead. As the movie gets swallowed up in its own stilted verbosity, I kept thinking that it would work better as one of those audiobooks. Just don't listen to it while driving. You might get drowsy and hit a tree.

From The Archives Issue 358: December 10, 1981