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The Da Vinci Code (11/08/2006)
By David Robinson


     
Film versions of best-selling novels are almost invariably disappointments, especially to those who have read and loved the book. The reasons for the inevitable shortfall are so numerous as to occupy a whole column. For the present example, The Da Vinci Code"”available this week on video and DVD--suffice it to say that the adaptation process was likely doomed from the start. Since screenplays of necessity must cut out or condense large segments of plot, and since this novel is one of the most heavily plotted novels this side of Dickens, one could see the problems coming from the proverbial mile off. Also, since most in the audience know how the story comes out, the Big Mystery is undercut from the get-go. Add to that the controversy surrounding the film"”making it a "must see"¯/"¯must not see"¯ experience--and you have a film riding a wave of hype and fated to crash.

Reviews of Code were fairly harsh, jumping all over (among other things) Tom Hanks' hairdo (!), screenwriter Akiva Goldman's attempts to stay faithful to the original, and some pretty lame dialogue. (Sample: "I've never met a girl who knows a lot about a cryptex!"¯) To his credit, director Ron Howard deserves somewhat more applause than boos. He moves the action along as well as possible under the circumstances"”this is an immensely talkie novel, after all"”and he makes adroit use of special effects to get past some of the stickier parts, such as Harvard symbologist Robert Laydon (Hanks) having the uncanny ability to decipher instantly codes which have baffled experts for two millenia. (The novelist, Dan Brown, gets a screen credit for "additional codes,"¯ as if the story needed further obfuscation.) Plenty of chases"”on foot, in cars, on planes"”dot the brow-furrowed thinking out loud, just to give the viewer's own tired brain a rest.

But it's ultimately a pretty ordinary movie, despite some nice turns by Ian McKellen as a wealthy expatriate Oxford scholar and a bizarre performance by Paul Bettany as an albino monk turned serial assassin. Howard attempts to fill in the extensive back story of the Grail Quest by inserting black and white footage of the siege of Jerusalem, the Council of Nicea, etc., but the result looks like nothing so much as those tedious "educational films"¯ we were obliged to sit through in grade school, with the same laughable results.

I have delayed saying anything about the movie's plot: if you need to be told the story, you're likely not going to follow it, Howard's attempts to make it cohere nothwithstanding. Some fairly good supporting actors, such as Jean Reno and Alfred Molina, are wasted in one-dimensional roles. As the lead female actor, Audrey Tatou simply doesn't have the chops to make us buy her as a police expert in cryptology, fetching though she may be.

Aside from the forty million or so readers of the novel, potential renters include those looking for the thrill of the forbidden or the outrageous. The story, which questions some of the basic assumptions of the New Testament, will please some, annoy others. But, hey, this is the movies, which don't do either realism or Heavy Thought particularly well. (Star Wars and Matrix fans, don't bother writing, please.) The filmmakers attempt to forestall the controversy, in part by leaving the outcome nebulous. Some potentially interesting thematic material, introduced at the opening, asks us to consider the effect of re-exploring the past and the effects of that re-examination on the present.

But that is quickly dropped, in favor of emphasizing the Chase Flick which lies at the core of the rather pedestrian novel. The "PG-13"¯ rating feels about right, though I'd guess the average subteen would be better served and happier playing outside in these last days of autumn. 

 

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