The Da Vinci Code

As adapted by Akiva Goldsman and directed by Ron Howard, The Da Vinci Code is executed with such grim turgidity as to drain the popcorn thrill out of Dan Brown’s novel, proving with a loud thud that that which delights the mind not necessarily delight the eyes. There will be, elsewhere, all manner of saber-rattling dissection about the particulars of the film’s thesis and chief twist, and I’ll by and large leave that discussion for those more heartily invested in it, but the fact remains that in its steadfast devotion to the source material, the film version of The Da Vinci Code eschews the sort of spry adventure pacing that would help circumvent, or at least gloss over, many narrative potholes. The result is a self-serious bore, with just a few precious intermittent moments of excitement.

Tom Hanks stars as Harvard professor of religious symbology Robert Langdon, who is in Paris to give a guest lecture. Just as he’s finished, he’s summoned to the Louvre to aid in the identification of mysterious markings found on the body of curator Jacques Sauniere (Jean-Pierre Marielle), who we’ve seen murdered by Silas (Paul Bettany), an albino monk who inflicts ritualistic pain upon himself to be closer to God. Captain Bezu Fache (Jean Reno) — like Silas, a member of the ultra-conservative Catholic sect Opus Dei — suspects Langdon of the murder, and is hell-bent (if you’ll pardon the expression) on extracting a confession out of him.

French cop/cryptologist Sophie Neveu (Amélie’s Audrey Tautou) comes to Langdon’s assistance, and together they wriggle free of Fache’s custody; she also eventually reveals herself to be Sauniere’s estranged granddaughter. At issue for the duo are a series of coded messages that Sauniere has left. These messages lead to a key, and the key in turn to even more clues that all point to a secret about the mythical Holy Grail and Jesus Christ of Nazareth — a secret that a shadowy Opus Dei council, led by Bishop Aringarosa (Alfred Molina), will stop at nothing to destroy. Wanted by Interpol, Langdon and Neveu manage to stay one step ahead of Fache and solicit the assistance of Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellan), an old colleague of Langdon’s.

The labyrinthine conspiratorial mysteries that unfold in jet-setting fashion all over Europe and neatly unravel in the movie over the course of 36 hours or so are, of course, wildly improbably condensed, but to get hung up on that is to miss the point. National Treasure and any number of other historical thrillers are based on equally implausible or fancifully ridiculous turns, but nowhere near this dramatically inert; lightness afoot is the key to their success.

Howard and Goldsman, however, seem to fundamentally misread the appeal of Brown’s book — its sugary surface touch with intricate conspiracies, its savvy commingling (and co-opting?) of history and religion with more traditional elements of the thriller genre. It’s the literary equivalent, I assume, of sugar-free dessert; one reads it and feels like they’re somehow smarter or healthier than before they started. The big twist of the movie centers around “the greatest hoax perpetrated on mankind,” or whatever they’re calling it, yes, but the filmmakers and every member of the cast save McKellan seems to be ground into the shoals of dullness by the weight of that quote-unquote obligation. Howard attempts to ratchet up the profundity of it all by shooting dark, dour frames and working in some transposed backdrops to help “connect” present and past, but what this chiefly means is long, chunky passages of didactic exposition. What does pass for character development — say, Neveu taking Langdon to a park and buying drug paraphernalia off a lingering junkie so that they then “have a moment to think” — is frequently downright laughable.

Hanks soldiers through this muddled affair as best he can, but evidences no discernible chemistry with Tautou, who is a charming actress out of her depths here. Only McKellan breathes some quirky, sardonic life into his role as Teabing. Everyone else seems to be solemnly intoning from one of the various narrated guidebooks for the cottage industry of Da Vinci Code travelogue tours. (Columbia/Sony, PG-13, 148 mins.)


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