Da Vinci Code, The (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Perhaps a better title for The Da Vinci Code might be Much Ado about Nothing. When you boil away the hype and hysteria, all that remains is a pedestrian murder mystery that isn't sufficiently challenging or scandalous to raise anyone's hackles. It's preposterous, overlong, and saddled with a sloppy denouement that defines the term "anti-climax." The film's two big "surprises" are telegraphed early, and the ease with which they can be guessed (using the "conservation of characters" process) leeches the movie of a large measure of its suspense. Individual scenes are entertaining in their own right, but the production as a whole is a lumbering mess.

I intentionally avoided Dan Brown's novel before seeing the movie (and don't intend to read it now that I have sat through the adaptation), hoping to provide a fresh perspective. Presumably, the book, which is often referred to as a "compulsive page-turner," is more riveting that its cinematic counterpart. The Da Vinci Code (the movie) is a mediocre thriller, with too few thrills and too much predictable action.

A murder in the Louvre sends Professor Robert Langdon, a visiting "symbologist" from Harvard, on the first steps of a dangerous journey that leads him into the heart of "the greatest cover-up in human history" - one that involves Opus Dei, the Knights Templar, cults, artwork, and a lot of things than happened 2000 years ago. His companion on the trek is French police officer Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou). They have been framed for the Louvre murder, and Captain Fache (Jean Reno), a humorless cop who's hiding something, is hot on their trail. Recognizing that they have uncovered the tip of a conspiracy that involves warring factions of the Catholic Church and the Holy Grail, they seek "Grail expert" Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellan), who joins their quest. (Sadly, the Monty Python troupe couldn't make it.) But the pursuit of Fache isn't the only thing they have to worry about. A murderous albino by the name of Silas (Paul Bettany), the "pet" of Bishop Sringarosa (Alfred Molina), has orders to eliminate them and take into custody an artifact they have in their possession.

The Da Vinci Code has strange rhythms for a thriller. Bursts of action are interrupted by lengthy periods of exposition. The crime is essentially resolved around the two-hour mark, leaving the movie nearly 30 minutes to muddle through to a drawn-out and predictable conclusion. Oddly, the "talky" parts of the film are more interesting than the kinetic ones. That's because, when it comes to explaining the conspiracy, The Da Vinci Code does an impressive job of blending fact, speculation, and pure fiction into a mix that is intriguing (albeit outlandish). The action sequences, on the other hand, are too straightforward to be more than distracting.

The scenes that really shine are those in which director Ron Howard brings his skills as a visual director to bear. When we first meet Langdon, he is lecturing on the meaning of symbols. The brief excerpt Howard provides of this talk is fascinating. Equally compelling is Teabing's dissection of "The Last Supper" and his explanation of the nature of the Holy Grail. And there's a little inventiveness in the way Langdon's visualization of Issac Newton's tomb is employed to break a code. 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.

Is The Da Vinci Code blasphemous or sacrilegious? It certainly takes a negative view of Catholic doctrine and Church policies. (Poor maligned Opus Dei.) And it calls into question cornerstone aspects of Christian faith. Some may find this distasteful, but the movie does not go out of its way to be insulting or condescending. The story is so outlandish as to be obviously fabricated, with a minimal basis in fact. The Da Vinci Code is fanciful enough that it requires no debunking - that much should be obvious to anyone attending the film.

The cast is impressive, and is headlined by megastar Tom Hanks, French beauty Audrey Tautou (Amelie), and respected British thespian (and everyone's favorite mutant or wizard) Ian McKellan. All do the best jobs they can with paper-thin characters. No one is given much of an opportunity to stand out. Paul Bettany brings a little menace to his role as the most visible bad guy, but he's never truly frightening. In fact, there are times when Jean Reno is more intimidating. The chemistry between Hanks and Tautou is lukewarm at best. If there's anything other than mild affection between them, it doesn't make it across. The Da Vinci Code is ultimately too plot-heavy to allow much in the way of character development, and that means it's not an actors' feature. Hanks is familiar, Tautou is lovely, and McKellan is eloquent - and that's all they have to be.

The prosaic story does not warrant the film's epic length. Two-and-one-half hour movies are supposed to be something special. This one is merely overlong. I can't help but wonder whether a shorter, sharper cut of The Da Vinci Code might have resulted in a more suspenseful production. The muddled ending is part of the problem, but so is the "treasure hunt" aspect of the journey. It becomes tedious when breaking a code or solving a puzzle merely uncovers another puzzle or code. After a while, this pattern becomes tiresome. Maybe it's fun to "play along" with characters in a book, but the movie experience isn't engaging. At least The Da Vinci Code is better in this respect than National Treasure.

In terms of its appeal, The Da Vinci Code isn't appreciably better or worse than its two summer 2006 big-budget predecessors, Mission: Impossible III and Poseidon (although it will likely score a higher total at the box office than either). Like those earlier releases, it's a relatively mindless affair that offers adequate entertainment value while displaying obvious, and often irritating, flaws. The controversy has made seeing The Da Vinci Code a more desirable night out than it might otherwise have been, but it won't take long before potential audience members recognize that the Emperor has no clothes. One could classify The Da Vinci Code as diverting, but it has sidestepped greatness by a wide margin.

Da Vinci Code, The (United States, 2006)

Director: Ron Howard
Cast: Tom Hanks, Audrey Tautou, Ian McKellan, Jean Reno, Paul Bettany, Alfred Molina
Screenplay: Akiva Goldsman, based on the novel by Dan Brown
Cinematography: Salvatore Totino
Music: Hans Zimmer
U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Run Time: 2:29
U.S. Release Date: 2006-05-19
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1