Though he's occasionally still confused by Pig Latin, Judge Bill Gibron could definitely decipher the weak entertainment elements in this big-screen adaptation of Dan Brown's brazen best-seller.
Our review of The Da Vinci Code (Blu-Ray), published May 18th, 2009, is also available.
So dark the con of man…and moviemaker.
Nothing is more annoying to a film fan than a movie that messes up a perfectly good story. Plot is an important element to any successful entertainment, but, in some cases, narrative can slip a little to allow for the development of character, mood, certain important themes, and the addition of symbolism. In essence, a tale is only as good as the moviemaking surrounding it, but sometimes, a perfectly good saga can get screwed up by the men who decide to tell it, and the manner in which they execute the explanation. Case in point: Dan Brown's preposterously pulpy publishing smash The Da Vinci Code. Argue over the dogma, or the dense, dull writing style all you want to, but the inherent story at the center of the film—the uncovering of the greatest hoax/mystery/truth of all time—is a damn fine tale. In the proper hand, it could be a mind-bending piece of popcorn-style amusement, with audiences equally intrigued and outraged by the individuals and the situations depicted. So why was the actual resulting effort—which was a mega box-office hit based on book sales alone—so undeniably mediocre? Why was such a potentially potent epic so sloppy and uninvolving? You'll have to ask the two men responsible for this mess: director Ron Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman. Somehow, they managed to take a great potboiler plot and piss it away in a completely unrepentant way.
Facts of the Case
While lecturing in Paris, noted Harvard professor (and symbologist) Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks, Forrest Gump) is approached by the police. Seems the curator of antiquities for the Louvre has been found dead, and Langdon's name was in his day planner. Also, the man's body was covered in some cryptic drawings, and a message near the corpse appears purposefully placed there for Langdon. While Captain Fache (Jean Reno, The Professional) is convinced Langdon is guilty, another agent, Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou, Amelie) decides to protect him. Helping Langdon escape, she tells him the bad news: he is the prime suspect in the investigation. Even worse, she is not really from the police. She is the granddaughter of the dead man and wants to find out who killed him. Turns out, her relative was a member of the Priory of Sion, a secret society bent on protecting the whereabouts and, more importantly, the real identity of the long legendary Holy Grail. Langdon believes that if they can find out who is murdering the members of this mystic order, they will not only get to the bottom of the crime, but a much larger conspiracy as well. He calls in a favor from old friend Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen, Lord of the Rings) and, while the French police pursue the fugitives, a mysterious monk (Paul Bettany, A Beautiful Mind) with death on his mind seeks out Langdon, Neveu, and anyone else associated with unlocking The Da Vinci Code.
The problems with the film adaptation of The Da Vinci Code are numerous. What should have been a home run for even the most pedestrian Hollywood journeyman becomes a striking bit of overly complicated chaos in the hands of the usually reliable Ron Howard. For the man behind such mainstream hits as Apollo 13 and Backdraft, something about this story just sidelined him. It could be the incredibly inept scripting by that typewriting pariah Akiva Goldsman, a narrative with a desire to deal with each and ever element of Dan Brown's overdeveloped novel. Part of it could be story itself. By making both Robert Langdon and Sophie Nevue individually intertwined and imperative to the plot points (as suspects and secret subject matter), there is no room for the viewer to breath, no chance to relax and let events spin out and around the center. Everything is about Langdon and Nevue—the murders, the mystery, and the multiple levels of religious and theoretical motivation driving the action. Without either of these characters, or better yet, with both merely as observers of the intrigue swirling around them, some necessary pace and perspective could have been obtained. As it is, Howard seems hurried, having to pack in as many recognizable routines from the book as possible.
It could also be the acting. Tom Hanks, Audrey Tautou, and Jean Reno practically sleepwalk through this film, delivering performances of such blankness that they tend to meld into the travelogue-like locations of each scene. You know how blank Mr. Box Office is when he can't even hold his own with a surreal, scenery-chewing Jurgen Prochnow. Once Ian McKellen turns up as Sir Leigh "E." Teabing (the middle initial standing for exposition) and steals every scene he is in, the lack of excellence from the rest of the cast becomes even more painful. Granted, McKellen's key scene, in which he spends way too much time beating around the bush about Jesus, Mary, and their possible procreation, completely derails the film's forward momentum, but it also represents the main reason The Da Vinci Code was even noticed: the idea that Christ could be a man, not a god, and that his desires were as earthly as heavenly made Brown's book the kind of unlikely blockbuster that only this sort of scandalous scuttlebutt could create. Howard handles the scene so sloppily and the "arguing" between Hanks and McKellen is so unconvincing that it is endemic of the film's overall issues. When you can't even get your denouement right, the rest of your thriller seems equally tired and ineffective.
Unfortunately, all of these perceived excuses let Howard off the hook, yet the sad fact is that his direction here is absolutely horrible. There is no sense of danger, no atmosphere of dread or discovery. Whenever the police show up to hound Langdon and Nevue, it always feels forced, like a necessary nudging of the plot toward its finish. In addition, the puzzle aspects are frequently tossed aside in a rather routine fashion. Whenever Langdon has to figure out one of the many "clues" strewn throughout the story, Howard simply starts up the CGI and lets numbers and symbols fiddle about until—BINGO!—the scholar has the answer. Perhaps the most annoying of these sequences occurs when the cryptex has to be deciphered, lest the villain ventilate one of our heroes. As computerized planets orbit and Hanks gives that wistful look he's patented in such films as Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail, the answer never becomes obvious—not to us, not to Hanks, not to anyone with the faintest idea on decoding such complex enigmas. Of course Langdon gets it, yet the conclusion is pat, made to seem obvious but actually about as far-fetched as a solution can get.
If Howard was a true auteur, a filmmaking visionary with his cinematic sense highly tuned to art and artifice as well as essential filmic elements and the occasional flights of fancy, he could have made this all work. Instead of overdosing on flashbacks to illustrate everything discussed, instead of melding the past and present together to form some uneasy alliance between motion picture and literary mandates, he could have attempted some of the mainstream magic that many filmmakers use to make the difficult digestible. A good example is the entire Constantine sequence in which we learn of the Holy Bible's streamlining by the supposedly pagan Roman emperor. The first time we flashback to ancient times to witness the council clashing over topics, we sense something special will occur. But as he does all throughout The Da Vinci Code, Howard fails to give us anything remotely necessary to the main storyline. Instead, it feels like we're walking through a natural history museum that is convinced that no one will connect to the issues of the past without some multimedia element to draw them into the idea. In essence, Howard treats his audience like they're illiterate, unable to understand anything without some "purty pictures"' to spice up their comprehension.
Here's the real rub—and issue—with The Da Vinci Code. If we are to believe the theories and ideas at the center of this story, if the truth about Christ, the church, and all elements of organized religion were so precariously balanced on such a potentially faith-shattering precipice, there would be a lot more intrigue involved than a rogue cop and an equally unhinged albino running around framing (and filleting) people. We never get a sense of how important this is to the Vatican or how concerned anyone besides Opus Dei would be if Jesus was suddenly Mary's baby daddy. Wouldn't more people besides the Catholics be pissed? Why aren't other factions of Christianity—including the Born-Again and the Baptists—not bringing out their own assassins to stop the Priory of Sion and destroy the truth (of course, this would mean that somehow, the information had found its way beyond the close-knit cabals at the center of the conspiracies). Basically, this is a big honking hammer poised to crush the very fabric of religion, yet everyone in the film is treating it like the secret formula for Mr. Pibb—important to some, but not really that interesting to the rest of the world. Indeed, no one ever addresses the fact that Christ's infallibility is more important to religious ritual than people's internal belief in God. Even if there were legitimate heirs to his bloodline, most followers would want to build temples to kin, not throttle them for being less than divine.
Thus The Da Vinci Code meanders and muddles its way through two-and-a-half hours of dry, dead air. It does have to be said that The Da Vinci Code does play better on a smaller scale than in its Cineplex incarnation five months ago. The Leigh Teabing talkathon is still incredibly problematic and the movie never quite compensates for the narrative damage it does, but the rest of the action seems perfectly honed for home theater. Since thrillers are not based in actual presence, but in the consequences hinted at should our heroes get caught, the fear is rather flaccid and unconvincing. We are so used to the "by-the-numbers" concepts inherent in TV chases and chills, however, that it works much better in the minor medium. Besides, the secret is so well-known to most of the general public that nothing the movie tries in the way of revelation or discovery has an effect. Perhaps, had a Crying Game-like moratorium been placed on the central conceit (and if Brown could have prevented companies like Disinformation from flooding the market with books and movies supporting and/or suspecting his secret), the reveal would be more fun. As it stands, it's just another unsuccessful element in a movie that can't seem to do anything right.
Columbia Pictures/Sony wants to provide the complete special edition gloss to this release. For the most part, the overpolishing is fairly acceptable. Granted, this is a very drab movie, with Howard using several desaturated scenes. It gives the movie a weird color/monochrome mix. Still, the 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen image is fairly strong when it comes to visual finesse and a lack of defects. The contrasts are crisp without excess edge enhancement, and the darks feel deep and rich. On the sonic side of things, the Dolby Digital 5.1 and Stereo Surround 2.0 have a wonderful ambient quality that really amplifies the mood in the film. There are lots of little noises floating around the channels, sonic signatures that try to force the ethereal elements into the story. While the score can be a bit sappy at times, the overall effect is far more powerful than the movie it's modifying.
As for extras, we are treated to a second DVD with more than 90 minutes of featurettes, presented in either a "play all" menu mode or viewable individually. They include a look at the start of production ("First Day on the Set with Ron Howard," two minutes), some words from the author ("A Discussion with Dan Brown," five minutes), a dissection of the main character ("A Portrait of Langdon," seven minutes), an explanation of Audrey Tautou's role ("Who is Sophie Nevue?," seven minutes), and a chance to meet all the ancillary players in the storyline ("Usual Suspects," 18 minutes). Most of this material is interesting, if only because it occasionally appears to challenge much of what we see in the actual film. When Brown argues for Langdon's heroism or Howard discusses how much color the supporting actors provide, it seems to suggest a whole other dynamic than the one on the screen.
Next, the bonus features deal with locations and sets ("Magical Places," 16 minutes) while the cast and crew provide some anecdotes about Da Vinci's most famous masterwork ("Close Up of Mona Lisa," seven minutes). You'll be amazed at the amount of CGI used, and empathize with people's emotional reaction to the famous portrait. Two minor documentaries discuss the various symbols strewn throughout the film ("The Codes of The Da Vinci Code," six minutes) and the creation of the musical score ("The Music of The Da Vinci Code," three minutes); they are informative, if rather superficial. The proper behind-the-scenes style EPK is provided in a two-part overview of the production ("A Filmmaker's Journey Part 1," 25 minutes, and "A Filmmaker's Journey Part 2," 13 minutes). With what's mostly a series of set-ups followed by more Q&A responses, we do discover some of the logistical nightmares facing The Da Vinci Code. Still this is the kind of bare-bones contextualizing we expect from a big-budget Hollywood effort. No real dirt is dished here.
Sadly, what this DVD could really use is a set of competing commentaries. Get academics on both sides to support and/or deride Brown's analysis, the film's depiction of events, and the factual/fictional basis for many of the conclusions drawn. Instead of being purely in it for the ersatz entertainment quality of the story, the digital presentation could act as an opportunity to bring substance and scholarship to the entire Da Vinci Code concept. Turn the title into an event. Instead, we get a bland movie with an equally ordinary set of studio-driven features.
Big-budget blockbusters don't come any more baffling than the dour, dreary Da Vinci Code. While some may give Ron Howard a pass for at least trying to deliver Dan Brown's unnecessarily dense dissertation on ancient religious conspiracy theories to the silver screen, "almost" only counts in horseshoes, atomic explosions, and horror films. If you are a major fan of the novel and feel that any live-action illustration of the material will be absolutely acceptable to you, then there was really no need to read this review. The movie will more than meet with your expectations. If, on the other hand, you require something a little more solid from your thrillers than uninvolved actors merely going through the sloppily-scripted motions, than you'll find this 155-minute voyage into the world of weirded-out Christian cabals to be overblown, underdone, and hardly worth the investment of time. There is probably a great film to be made out of this material, and one can easily imagine a time, say a couple of decades from now, when Hollywood's creative quagmire determines that someone could or should craft a remake. Here's hoping that if and when that day comes, the filmmakers will take a little more care in how they script and cast this tale. The Da Vinci Code tries to be a spry, spiritual thriller. It ends up a faith-based bore.
Guilty of numerous crimes against film, literature, and plausibility. This court hereby sentences all involved to 100 years of scripture review with a concurring sentence of 50 years in the basic tenets of motion-picture entertainment.
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• "First Day on the Set with Ron Howard" featurette
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