'The Da Vinci Code': Heaven Only Knows, By Kurt Loder

Tom Hanks is all talk in a long and fun-free adaptation of Dan Brown's mega-bestseller.

This flabby and blab-infested movie demonstrates once again why Hollywood should stop trying to adapt international egghead blockbusters — books about books, or about various sorts of twisty antiquarian arcana — into films. Works of this sort (beach books for intellectuals, as a reviewer once handily put it) are too solidly rooted in stylish writing and convoluted scholarly concepts to make rousing movies. Witness the stunted 1986 screen version of Umberto Eco's densely bibliophilic "The Name of the Rose," and the atrocious hash that Roman Polanski's 1999 fiasco, "The Ninth Gate," made of Arturo Pérez-Reverte's brilliant "The Club Dumas."

Books like these are meant to be chewed over, puzzled out; mass-market movies, if it need be said, aren't. And so sitting through the film version of "The Da Vinci Code," with its bland characters nattering on and on about Rose Lines and keystones and of course the mysterious Priory of Sion, is like having the book read to you — or, more accurately, at you. Which is to say, it's boring. (It's also two and a half hours long, which makes it — believe me — extra-boring.)

No one is likely to mistake author Dan Brown's serviceable prose for stylish writing, and character development doesn't seem to be among the slender arrows in his artistic quiver. Nevertheless, his first three heavily researched techno-thrillers — "Digital Fortress," "Angels & Demons," and "Deception Point" — were highly efficient page-turners. The fourth, of course, 2003's "Da Vinci Code," ascended to another level of pop phenomena entirely, and has since evolved into an object of worldwide, cult-like obsession.

Those among the 60 million or so readers who've bought this book will be familiar, in many cases feverishly, with its story, as much as possible of which has been crammed into the movie. Briefly, Jesus was not the Son of God and he didn't die on the cross; instead, he married Mary Magdalene and had a child, and their "royal" bloodline was somehow channeled into the noble families of Europe, on which continent it courses still. These little-known facts are the actual essence of the legendary Holy Grail (previously thought to be a cup of some sort). They have been guarded over the centuries by a secret society called the Priory of Sion, whose "grand masters" have included Leonardo da Vinci, Isaac Newton, Victor Hugo, and — most ridiculously, perhaps — the French writer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau. The Roman Catholic Church, and especially the semi-shadowy sect called Opus Dei, is aware of all this; and the Church, mired in institutional misogyny, will do anything to prevent word of the faith's original basis in the long-suppressed "sacred feminine" from leaking out. Anything.

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This vivid tale, set forth in a 1982 book called "Holy Blood, Holy Grail," has been demonstrated, quite conclusively, to be hogwash. (The Priory of Sion turns out to have been "founded" in 1956, by a veteran French con man named Pierre Plantard.) Still, it's a ripping yarn, and Dan Brown — who was accused of plagiarism in an unsuccessful lawsuit against his publisher earlier this year by two of the authors of "Holy Blood, Holy Grail" — did a bang-up job of repackaging it as a conspiracy thriller, injecting the story with such characters as a murderous albino monk, a conveniently expositional Grail expert and a malevolent eminence known only as "the Teacher." Brown also laid in a thicket of cryptic messages and (the book's most fascinating aspect) coded artwork. To attempt to make sense of all this, he installed a Harvard "professor of religious symbology" named Robert Langdon.

Langdon is a wooden, unengaging character in the book — he's there to clear away conundrums in an all-knowing way, nothing more — and he's portrayed with surprising woodenness in the movie by Tom Hanks, who looks alarmingly overweight and who seems to be acting, in some scenes, mainly with his jowls. (Wandering disconsolately through the flaccid proceedings, Hanks appears increasingly dismayed by what the movie's turning into, which is a mess.) Langdon's associate in symbological detection, "police cryptologist" Sophie Neveu, is played by the charming French actress Audrey Tautou ("Amélie"); but she and Hanks have no chemistry at all. (The high point of their interpersonal heat is a limp handshake at the end of the picture.) In unfortunate addition, the skilful British actor Paul Bettany has been directed to play the tormented albino monk, Silas, as a lurching monster out of a late-'50s Hammer horror movie. If it weren't for the always-reliable Ian McKellen and his twinkly performance as Leigh Teabing, the eccentric Grail groupie, the picture would have virtually nothing to recommend it, apart from some mildly picturesque exterior views (and artfully contrived interiors) of the Louvre, in Paris, and Westminster Abbey, in London. And they're not worth 10 bucks to look at.

Director Ron Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman previously worked together on "Cinderella Man" and "A Beautiful Mind," two memorably intelligent films. But they seem poorly qualified, possibly by temperament, for this unabashedly pulpy project. Howard never manages to make the overloaded story lift off. His grainy "historical" flashbacks to such obscure settings as the First Council of Nicea are fuddling visual intrusions; and when an attempted assassination is miraculously foiled by a sudden swoop of white doves (!), or when Langdon and Sophie manage to slip away from a police-besieged Paris bank because her family account "includes a safe-passage clause," it's hard to imagine what he was thinking.

Similarly, it's difficult to conceive of Goldsman signing off on dialogue like "I think the Grail is goin' home" and "You're saying all this stuff is real?" Not to mention Langdon's groan-summoning "It all started about a thousand years ago... ." Although by the time the film's last scene has finally shambled by, that phrase at least seems an apt comment on this interminable movie itself.

—Kurt Loder

 

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