In the opening scene of The Da Vinci Code, an old man is gutshot by Paul Bettany, who has been covered in pancake makeup. The film then cuts to a lecture delivered by Tom Hanks as Robert Langdon, a Harvard professor of “religious symbology,” who is in France presenting what appears to be a version of the “What is This Picture” feature from Jack and Jill magazine (you know, the one where a super close-up of a weird shiny black object is revealed to be a button). As this lecture goes on the old man is dying offscreen, but not before he runs around the Louvre leaving anagrammatic messages written in the invisible ink pen he keeps on hand for any such occasion, as well as rehanging a giant framed painting he took off the wall while being chased by Bettany. Everything that follows in The Da Vinci Code is ludicrous, but nothing ever manages to top the image of this old man, bleeding profusely from his stomach, picking up and rehanging a huge painting. Except that perhaps the old man next strips naked, paints a pentagram on his own chest in his own blood and makes sure to die in a posture that will recall a Da Vinci drawing.
The Da Vinci Code is a terrible movie. It’s a movie that’s too stupid to appreciate it’s own stupid origins, and so it takes itself completely seriously. The stupider things get, the more seriously the movie takes itself, and the more seriously it takes itself, the funnier it is. The movie isn’t content with its own stupidity – it actively assumes that the audience is operating on a simian mental level (although considering how bad the writing in Brown’s original novel is, maybe the movie is overestimating the fanbase). The film is littered with thuddingly literal flashbacks that offer nothing to us – there’s even a flashback detailing how our heroes escape a plane that’s surrounded by police when it’s deadly obvious how they did it. The flashback starts and we see the characters doing exactly what we already assumed they did – it’s like director Ron Howard suddenly lost faith in the ability of the moviegoing public to figure out what’s happening between frames. And this escape isn’t even clever – our heroes jump out of a taxiing plane and into the back seat of a car.
The film is a disaster from beginning to end – not only does Dan Brown’s retarded story become even more ridiculous when amplified and projected on screen, the movie version manages to be crushingly dull. Everything written about the book lately says that it reads like a treatment for a movie, but the movie being outlined is one without a real plot. The characters run from clue to clue, and it’s not until about an hour has gone by that you realize you don’t care. The bad news is that you still have about an hour and a half of this bloated beast to sit through.
The madcap race from clue to clue would be fun if the clues and puzzles were interesting, but they seem to be on about the level of the puzzles and riddles that appear in the Magic Ink books your parents would give to you on long car trips. I have to admit to not having the stamina to plow through Dan Brown’s eighth grade prose – I gave up the book less than halfway through. But on the page the puzzles, while still dim, at least have the back and forth that comes from maybe an easy game of Suduko. In the film they get breezed past in moments, not giving the audience time to even think about them. If you’re not going to let us play, Mr. Howard, at least make the puzzles complicated enough that we can think about them later. Or at least make them the kinds of puzzles that I might believe people would use to hide the Most Important Secret in history (and don’t use modern words like “Con” when you’re talking about Sir Isaac Fucking Newton).
If not that, how about adding some action to the film? The Da Vinci Code is ostensibly a thriller, but most of the “thrills” seem to come from one character pointing a gun at another. I’m by no means an advocate of mindless action in films, but the third time someone is standing in a church with a gun pointed at them while the villain yaps I wanted to get up and walk out of the fucking theater. These standoffs only serve to highlight the complete passivity of our hero. Langdon spends the vast majority of the film kind of hanging around, occasionally having a eureka moment and then getting beat up by a monk that a cripple is able to take out minutes later.
That cripple, by the way, is Ian McKellen, playing the character of Sir Leigh Teabagging, and he’s the only reason I would even begin to consider recommending this movie (for the record, I in no way recommend this movie). McKellan recognizes the pulp roots of the story and rips into his character with refreshing joy and humor. The rest of the cast are cast adrift amidst the inanities in Oscar winner (!) Akiva Goldsman’s script. I honestly don’t know why Tom Hanks signed on to this film – a quick look at the screenplay would have let him know that while he’s in most scenes, he has absolutely nothing to do. I’m only imagining he’s looking to knock Samuel L Jackson off the top-grossing stars list. Everything that made Audrey Tatou so charming in Amelie is gone here as she stumbles along on History’s Most Important Scavenger Hunt until she comes to an ending that isn’t even telegraphed – it’s instant messaged to the audience. Meanwhile, Jean Reno shows up as French law dictates that he must appear in any Hollywood movie shot in that country. Other great actors appear and shame themselves and their families for generations to come.
I haven’t even gotten to the center of the story, the thing that’s causing all the brouhaha with certain religious types, the concept that Jesus married and had kids. There’s no point – the film makes a hash of history to get to that conclusion, but you have to suspend some disbelief at some point. Actually, some of the historical portions are the best parts of the movie. Not because they’re good or they’re well-done or work structurally (they don’t), but because McKellen narrates many of them. As these sequences happened I longed for The Godfather. See, Mario Puzo’s original novel is a poorly written, pulpy pop book, but in the right hand it transcended its origins and became one of the best films ever made. The Da Vinci Code is a terrible book, made popular by the kind of people who give reading a bad name, but it does have scope, and in the right hands it could have been turned into something special. Those hands do not belong to Ron Howard.
What do you think is on Ron Howard’s DVD shelf? I am guessing the Bourne films – he adopts the kinetic shaky cam style the way a nerdy younger brother adopts his cooler older sibling’s walk. There’s one scene involving a backwards car chase that was so poorly shot and edited that its utter lack of coherence suddenly became brilliant. The best stuff in The Da Vinci Code seems to have been shot by the second unit crew – the shots of landmarks and landscapes can be wonderful, but once we’ve gone from the helicopter shot of the millennia old church to the actual interior, it might as well have been the inside of a warehouse. Howard’s not a bad director, just one with modest talent, but here he’s flat out terrible.
Halfway through The Da Vinci Code I realized that this was a prestige TV miniseries blown all out of proportion (yet seemingly just as long as something that would be spread out over three nights). If the book had been written thirty years ago, Richard Chamberlain would have played Langdon, and he would have been better than the two-time Oscar winner in the role.