May 25, 2006

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The Da Vinci Code (PG-13)
The speedy read of Dan Brown’s book is adapted with a seemingly never-ending movie in The Da Vinci Code, a biblical National Treasure that moves as though its characters are wading through molasses.

You know how about 20 minutes into CSI you more or less know who killed the body-of-the-week but you have to wait another 20 to 25 minutes for the characters to suss it out via black light searches and test-tube-heavy montages? That “are we there yet” feeling becomes rather overwhelming about an hour into The Da Vinci Code when we in the audience have received enough information to get a sense of what all the hullabaloo is about but Tom Hanks is still guessing at anagrams and trying to deliver miles of exposition to the needlessly dull-witted Audrey Tautou.

The slog-through-mud feeling to this two-and-a-half-hour movie is odd because part of what makes The Da Vinci Code so popular is its lightning-fast readability. Of all the Brownisms Ron Howard should have stayed true to, that would have been my first choice.

As it is, Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (Hanks) and French cryptographer Sophie Neveu (Tautou) stretch out their historical scavenger hunt far past the bounds of logic and patience to attempt to decipher the last words of Jacques Sauniere (Jean-Pierre Marielle), a curator at the Louvre. As we see in the opening scenes, he is shot to death by the albino monk Silas (Paul Bettany) but has a little time before he goes to that big art museum in the sky. So, he festoons the Louvre gallery with clues — symbols he draws in blood on his body, a confusing little couplet written on the floor, some invisible ink tags to Da Vinci paintings. Neveu, his estranged granddaughter, and Langdon, a suspect in Sauniere’s murder, follow his hints to the discovery of a key and into the history and mythology of the Catholic Church. Langdon comes to believe Sauniere is actually part of an ancient society protecting a deep dark church secret. He seeks proof of Sauniere’s involvement in the Priory of Sion and proof of the secret they protected — no easy feat since Langdon is being chased by the French investigator Fache (Jean Reno) and his tiny-car-driving French police.

Forget for a moment Brown’s clunky dialogue (which is no less clunky in the film) and the historical hooey (to use Hanks’ word) that gives the story its spice — The Da Vinci Code (the book), like the popular C.S.I., is a breezy little procedural perfect for when you don’t want the morality discussions of Law & Order but want something a little more exotic than the Las Vegas/Miami/New York locales offered by CBS’s show. I find the “history” of The Da Vinci Code entertaining for the same reason I enjoy the Cecil B. DeMille version of The Ten Commandments — it’s silly and campy and terribly showbizzy. What makes the movie such a disappointment is that it can’t seem to rise to even the book’s level of hokey razzle dazzle. The movie takes the book seriously — as do, I’m sure, plenty of its fans — and in doing so sucks the fun (and the fast) out of the story. (Does a movie that takes place in one night really need 150 minutes to explain itself?)

So what does director Ron Howard replace the cheese with?

Murkiness. The movie is dimly lit but in a way that is more smoggy than noir-like. Accessorizing all that heavy exposition (history of the Church, history of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, history of the Inquisition) are History Channel-type montages of pagan Romans and Dark-Ages-women charged with witchcraft. Better than simply accompanying Lagndon’s explanations with Neveu’s quizzical looks, I’ll agree, but, shown with a scratchy-film quality to indicate historical flashback, they don’t help break through the haze.

And then there’s that extra hour. Even with the haze, the lame dialogue, the silly plot, this movie could have been saved with the help of a brave editor, willing to take scissors to the reels and at least see that things move along at a good pace. With no such knight to fight for the audience, this holy grail quest begins to feel too much like a forced march. D+


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