First of all, is this a movie or a controversy? I choose to think it’s a movie first and a controversy second. I also believe that anyone whose faith can be undermined by a Ron Howard picture was on pretty shaky ground, belief-wise, to begin with.
No, I haven’t read the book (though it’s sitting inches away from me and I might still get to it), but I certainly knew the premise and the essence of the solution of The DaVinci Code before seeing it. With all the controversy surrounding both the book and the film, it would be nearly impossible not to. So I can’t say I was much surprised by anything in the movie.
I am, however, surprised by the generally negative critical response to it — and can’t help but remember that many of these folks were praising Mission: Impossible III a couple weeks ago. Are the rumors true that many people are afraid that supporting the film will fan the fire of those already offended by the material? What exactly was expected here? Was this supposed to be a daring visionary work? A film for the ages? Let’s get serious here. It’s a movie incarnation of a middle-brow pop novel made by the quintessential middle-brow pop director of our age and starring the safest actor imaginable, Tom Hanks (setting aside his roles in Road to Perdition and The Ladykillers).
Sure, it can be argued that the controversial nature of the material is daring — for Ron Howard — but how hard is that? Plus, in the hands of Howard and his pet screenwriter, Akiva Goldsman, the material was destined to wind up as anything but subversive — questioning the divinity of Christ for seven reels, only to turn around and conclude in the eighth that belief in his divinity is essential. And did anyone really think Howard was going to depart from his customary “style” of impersonal craftsmanship?
In essence, he delivered exactly the film I expected — a glossy, well-made film version of a book that was predestined to occasionally bog down owing to the fact that it’s ultimately a movie about an idea. The gunplay, chases, intrigue and murderous melodrama exist only to turn the idea into entertainment, and Howard is forced to pause occasionally to focus on the story’s premise concerning Jesus Christ, Mary Magdalene and the Holy Grail. Unfortunately, the premise is so well known by now that any sense of discovery on the part of the viewer was gone before the movie hit the screen.
What’s left is the entertainment value of the plot’s twists and turns and the mechanics of solving the mystery. Frankly, I was impressed by how entertaining this was. The early scenes are a bit of a drag, but once the film got the set-up out of the way, I never found it dull. It’s often preposterous — yes, a fast-driving psychotic albino monk wearing a self-torture device would be my first choice for an inconspicuous assassin — but it’s rarely boring. Howard deserves kudos just for handling it all with a straight face. And he and Goldsman are both to be commended for not resorting to the emotionally manipulative schmaltz that oozes from their previous collaborations.
The film is not flawless by any means. I don’t know if Tom Hanks is miscast as the story’s more cerebral Indiana Jones (he’s even given a Jones-like phobia) or if the problem is simply the fact that his role as the character of Robert Langdon just isn’t very interesting. It’s telling that Hanks’ best scenes are the ones where he acts as a foil to Ian McKellen’s improbably named Grail scholar, Sir Leigh Teabing. McKellen is both the film’s blessing and its curse. When he’s onscreen, the film is delightful. Once he disappears from the story, it tends to stagnate, tediously inching its way to its ultimate solution. Fortunately, that solution turns out to be a pretty satisfying one, making the last leg of the journey seem more palatable after the fact.
It’s curious that the same week brings us two films concerning religion-driven psychos — Paul Bettany’s Silas in this film, and Kane’s Jacob Goodnight in the dismal See No Evil. And it’s ironic that Bettany’s supporting role in a PG-13 thriller like this is far more frightening. Chalk that up to the fact that Ron Howard — whatever his shortcomings — actually knows how to craft a movie. Unfortunately, on many occasions Howard doesn’t know when to leave well enough alone — tossing in pointless footage of how Langdon became claustrophobic (we’ve already been told this) and a risible flashback explaining how Langdon, Silas and Sophie (Audrey Tautou) get out of a plane and hide in a car (we don’t need to know this). Such scenes just add length to an already lengthy movie.
But despite everything, the movie is entertaining, and it at least has a few ideas knocking around in it. Yes, the ideas are bolstered by a lot of fact-fudging — something religion itself never does (cough) — and the movie wants to have it both ways by courting controversy and defusing it at the same time. Still, that the film has ideas in a season of brainless action flicks is enough to make it noteworthy. In that regard, maybe it is kind of daring after all. Rated PG-13 for disturbing images, violence, some nudity, thematic material, brief drug references and sexual content.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke