A Last Few Da Vinci Thoughts

May 25, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli


Now that I have seen the movie, I can address a few issues that I couldn't beforehand. For purposes of this column, I am assuming that the reader has either (1) also seen the movie, or (2) doesn't care if I give things away, like the ending. You have been warned.

First, however, I would like to address the box office numbers. Some people were surprised that the film made around $75M (domestically) during its first weekend. This surprise is surprising, considering that The Da Vinci Code was expected to make between $70M and $80M, and that's where the number ended up. For inexplicable reasons, however, analysts backed off this figure after the Cannes premiere, and I can't figure out why. Did anyone seriously believe that a negative reaction from a French film festival (even a prestigious one) coupled with mediocre reviews by U.S. critics would diminish the gross? The Da Vinci Code is critic-proof. People were going to see it during its opening weekend irrespective of what I, Roger Ebert, a throng at Cannes, or the Pope said.

For me, the more interesting numbers are this weekend's. A big gross on the first weekend was a given. But the box office success (or lack thereof) on the second weekend will be a product of word-of-mouth. What did last weekend's viewers tell their friends? Did they recommend it or not? This weekend's numbers will tell us whether The Da Vinci Code will be successful (between $200M and $300M domestically), hugely successful (between $300M and $400M) or a monster (>$400M). Keeping in mind that this is an extended holiday weekend, my best guess is that a total of $40M or less will put it in the lower category, $40M to $70M will put it in the middle category, and more than $70M will put it in the higher category. The key here isn't so much the gross as it is a measure of viewer satisfcation and positive word-of-mouth.

Regardless of how The Da Vinci Code does, there's probably only one movie with a legitimate chance of outgrossing it this summer. With apologies to Superman fans (and I'm one), it's not Superman Returns (which should do nicely, but not spectacularly). It's Cars. If I was going to guarantee a $300M (domestic) summer 2006 movie, that would be it. But enough about money and the box office derby.

In my review of The Da Vinci Code, I wrote the following: "Sadly, as a director, Howard also makes a major misstep with an unforgivable continuity gaffe (it involves a phone call). Although (I am told) this is explained in the book, the explanation is not provided in the movie, and it becomes an instance of slipshod misdirection." Permit me to explain. By the time the plane carrying our heroes landed in England, I was sure that Leigh (the Ian McKellen character) was The Teacher. Conservation of characters and all that... Then the movie did something to undermine my certainty. First, we see Leigh, his aide, Robert, and Sophie piling into a limo. Next, we see the bishop on the phone with The Teacher. Then we cut back to the inside of the limo with Leigh, his aide, Robert, and Sophie. Therefore, if the film is playing fair, Leigh cannot be The Teacher - how could he place this phone call to the bishop when he was in Robert and Sophie's company the entire time? Nevertheless, Leigh turns out to be The Teacher, so the film is guilty of cheating, and cheating in a big way.

In the book, it is explained that Leigh and his aide are in the front seat and Sophie and Robert are in the back. They are separated by a sound-proof partition that is closed. That allows Leigh to make the phone call without being overheard by Robert or Sophie. But that explanation is not in the movie. In fact, it's not even implied in the movie. Maybe it ended up on the cutting room floor. It doesn't matter. All we have to go on is what's on screen and this kind of cheat, in my opinion, is unforgivable.

Then there's the matter of the last 30 minutes. Is there anyone who didn't realize long before the "big reveal" that Sophie is the great-great-...-great grandchild of Jesus? Most people, I suspect, recognized this before the one hour mark. (By "most people," I'm referring to those who, like me, haven't read the book.) Conservation of characters again. So why was such a long, boring denouement necessary? Why not get it over with quickly? As far as I was concerned, this was a murder mystery. Once the killer is unmasked, the movie is essentially finished. Why waste 30 minutes tying up loose ends? The Return of the King ended more quickly.

After seeing the movie, I have become aware of how truly silly any protest against it is. The movie's backstory is fiction, and clumsy fiction at that. Yes, it's true that Mary Magdeline's role in Jesus' life was once a topic of debate, but there's no reliable historical documentation to argue one way or another. Absent that, anything The Da Vinci Code has to say about her is unsubstantiated. Getting upset about the "theology" represented in The Da Vinci Code is a waste of time and energy. If it bothers you, do what those who scented anti-Semitism in The Passion of the Christ did: don't see it.

That's all I have to say about The Da Vinci Code. Frankly, I hope I don't have to write another word about it. The movie isn't sufficiently interesting to warrant the ink it has gotten here or in other places. As befits any big summer movie, it desreves to have its moment in the sun, then fade into obscurity. If any good comes of the film, maybe it will be the greater international exposure accorded to Audrey Tautou. If this leads to her being on screen more, then The Da Vinci Code will have done some good after all.