Puzzle Solved


On my way to The Da Vinci Code I felt as bully as Teddy Roosevelt. The time was noon, the sky was promising, springtime buoyed me. Well rested, well fed (but not overfed), I was quite in the mood for a good, exciting movie-movie, especially one with some theological grit in it. A little church bashing always fine-tunes my spirit, and I even put myself in the mood for mysterioso-apocrypha by swatting up on the recent Gospel of Judas excitement. In fact, I did everything I could to predispose myself in the movie’s favor because I had read the first thirty pages of the novel and knew I had to somehow neutralize that self-lobotomizing experience. In any event, I was ready and willing to give the movie my best shot after allowing it to give me its best shot.

One hundred and forty-nine minutes later, I emerged from the multiplex with my head bowed (but not in piety), my shirt clammy (but not because of a breakdown in the air-conditioning), my contacts grinding my corneas (my senses in revolt), and my spirit temporarily darkened. Only a masterpiece or a truly lousy movie can do this to a viewer and, trust me, The Da Vinci Code is no masterpiece. Yet its makers are not clueless. Its director, Ron Howard, working as usual in partnership with the producer Brian Grazer, is a fairly reliable entertainer whose Ransom remains the best kidnapping thriller I’ve seen. The screenwriter, Akiva Goldsman, has never had his name on a film I could admire, but A Beautiful Mind proved he has the middlebrow genius required to take difficult subject matter and mash it into amiable pap. And Tom Hanks is surely the most versatile and dependable star on Hollywood’s current A list.

So what went wrong? What were they thinking?

The second question addresses the first. Grazer and Howard surely were anticipating huge box office because of the book’s stratospheric success. This isn’t necessarily a matter of absolute greed because future projects can be jump-started by current success. Howard has professed an intellectual interest in Dan Brown’s speculations about the Catholic Church’s suppression of women, the importance of Mary Magdalene, and the role of the Knights Templar, but whether he really took such an interest or not, the sure-fire nature of the project has apparently defused the energies of the director and nearly all his collaborators. Why strive when the very purchase of the hot property guarantees success? Everything on screen bespeaks coasting rather than steering.

Consider the script. (May I be excused from summarizing the plot?) Code’s protagonists, symbologist Robert Langdon (Hanks) and police cryptologist Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou), scramble over a lot of geography while unscrambling puzzles and unmasking villains, all the while hunted by the police for murders they didn’t commit. But while truly exciting chase-thrillers, such as North by Northwest and The Fugitive, employ a variety of dangerous situations to increase the exhilaration of the pursuit, in Code there’s only one situation repeated with thrill-suppressing monotony: Hanks and Tautou rush into a building, discover a puzzle, such as an anagram or a mysterious image, and solve it only to find that it leads to another puzzle; then we cut to a fanatic-killer-albino-monk closing in on some unfortunate who has aided or is about to aid our heroes, and he bashes or slashes or shoots them. Then back to the puzzle-solvers. And so it goes: solve, bash, solve, slash, solve, bang-bang. Nothing savory is made of the locales, no interesting relationship develops between the protagonists. The puzzle solving isn’t cinematic and the killings are all too blatantly cinematic in their uninventive brutality.

Consider the photography and direction. You’ve heard of film noir? Welcome to film bleu. Every shadow, every shaft of light, most of the backgrounds, many close-ups, are bathed in blue. For melancholy? mystery? foreboding? Well, yes, for all of these, and during the first ten minutes of the film, we can accept the ubiquitous blue, but then what? Where is the visual variety that a cross-continental thriller needs? Furthermore, to keep the action breathtaking, Howard and his editors continually (almost continuously) cut from one panning shot to another rather than varying static shots with pans and zooms, a lazy decision that destroys all suspense. With everything in visual flow, the story never has a chance to coil, strike, re-coil, and strike again.

Consider the acting. Hanks coasts on his personality but, for once, his charm has gone missing. Is it the weird pyramidal hair-do the make-up department has concocted for him? (Are we meant to ponder Egyptian Coptic mysteries?) Or is it that no charm can be deployed on lines such as, “I never met a girl who knew that much about a crypt-text.” Audrey Tautou is a gamine but her role requires not a gamine’s charm but a furrowed, intellectual brow and legs for Olympic-level running. For this we need Audrey Tautou? As an eccentric historian, Ian McKellan, in full Gandolf mode, coasts-at first effectively but with diminishing returns-on his pawky manner and sly-boots smile. Heading the police chase, Jean Reno serves up, for the umpteenth time, his French-inspector scowl. The one pleasant surprise is that Paul Bettany, lumbered with the most gimmicky role of all, makes the albino psycho not only frightening but pathetic.

This movie doesn’t even have the courage of its own scandal. Initially, it accuses Opus Dei members of instigating murder, but if you listen closely (and I mean closely), one of the characters mutters that it’s only the “fascist” branch of the organization that is committed to the skullduggery. As for the shock value of a Christ who has fathered children, Hanks concludes that “the only thing that matters is what you believe.” By which, I take it, he doesn’t mean that what you believe is important (sincerity, efficacy, intensity) but that what you believe is important for you. Whatever turns you on, baby.

Though it takes place in Europe and evokes ancient Palestine and Rome, this is a very American movie. Alas.

Published in the 2006-06-16 issue: 

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.

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