Thursday, May 25, 2006

Movie Review: The Da Vinci Code (2006)

I went yesterday afternoon to see Ron Howard's blockbuster adaptation of The Da Vinci Code. I hadn't read the best-seller by Dan Brown, so I went in "fresh," so-to-speak. I also didn't let the discouraging reviews by mainstream critics daunt my enthusiasm. News flash: I don't always (or even often...) agree with mainstream critics. So basically, I wanted to give the movie a fair hearing.

After viewing the film (adapted by Akiva Goldsman) by main question is simply this: was the book this dumb, vapid and ham-handed? If so, all I can say is "so dark the con" of Dan Brown.

My criticisms of The Da Vinci Code fall into nine general categories. Let's not dawdle with pre-text or "symbology," and just get into them:

1. Dialogue. I don't know if the dialogue came mostly from the novel intact or was re-purposed for the movie, but the screenplay contains some of the worst howlers I've heard in a mainstream movie in years. And yes, I saw Basic Instinct 2. It's not just that the dialogue is delivered ponderously and with hushed, self-important tones, it's that these words doesn't tend to arise naturally or believably from the characters. At one point, our protagonist, Robert Langdon (drearily portrayed by Tom Hanks...), is trapped in a bathroom amidst a murder investigation, and an escape attempt is suggested. He actually says a line that only Data, Spock, or other aliens should ever say with a straight face. "What do you propose?" he asks, blank-faced. How about, "what do you have in mind?" "what are you suggesting?" or "what are we going to do?" or "You have a plan?" Any of those would have sounded more like a real human being than the stodgy, "What do you propose?" I guess it's supposed to make him sound smart but it sounds like Screenwriter 101. The script is positively filled with anonymous-sounding dialogue that no real person (even a professor) would speak.

2. Silly Character Contrivances. Tom Hanks' Langdon suffers from a pat character "background trauma," one that's the most laughable and over-the-top such impediment since Elvis Presley went catatonic at the sight of a diving board in Fun in Acapulco back in the 1960s. Hint, if you've seen The Ring (2002), you won't be surprised. Why is it even necessary to burden this character with such a "trauma?" Again, it may have been in the novel, but it plays like Screenwriter 101.

3. Contrived Action and Plotting. At one point in The Da Vinci Code, a bird happens to fly by overheard (in a cathedral, no less...) at the very moment necessary to befuddle an expert (and armed...) assassin. This well-timed happenstance permits the protagonists just the opportunity they need to escape again. Divine intervention, you say? Screenwriter laziness, I counter.

4. A seriously-wrong headed finale. The bulk of this over two-hour "treasure" hunt of a film uses expansive dialogue, historical research, even Power-Point-style visual presentations to convince us, the viewers, that Mary Magdalene is indeed the Holy Grail. That Christ was human, married and boasts a sacred bloodline that continues to this very day. On the surface, that's an incredibly cool plot. The only problem is, Howard and Goldsman undercut the story (and the film's entire argument) with a pat little "summation" by the Hanks character at the end...which tries to say the opposite. This conclusion (which righteously panders to Christian audiences...we want their bucks, after all...) says - Nope, maybe Jesus really WAS divine after all. The Da Vinci Code thus lacks the courage of its convictions. It makes one case for over two hours, then tries to weasel out of that case in the last ten minutes. Let's please everybody! Pass the popcorn...

5. A general lack of believability. One of the main characters in the film is an albino assassin who walks freely and boldly around major metropolitan centers (like London...) dressed as a monk (in robes and a hood)...just like Friar broad daylight. This may have played as acceptable on the page, but on-screen it is unintentionally hilarious as poor Paul Bettany skulks around in his robe and sandals. Yikes!

6. Performances. Hey, I love Tom Hanks too. So I'm not even going to criticize him for his lousy haircut. But he is given not a single memorable line (though he gets a few laughable ones)...and worse, doesn't offer a single memorable delivery. Instead, Hanks walks-through-this role like a zombie...something I never thought I'd witness from the usually-terrific performer. But then again, how do you play a character who serves simply as a mouthpiece to deliver lots of expositional dialogue? Again, I think of Spock or Data on Star Trek...they were often tasked with just such unforgiving dialogue...but Nimoy and Spiner made it work. They engaged the material full-on, and with an individual perspective or world view (either through the rubric of "logic," or someone who desired to be more than a machine.) Often, they also seemed to sense the irony and humor of their thankless roles, and somehow transcended the exposition. Hanks doesn't get such a perspective, alas. He's supposed to love history and be professorial. End of character. So yeah, this movie is a little bit like watching your college English professor go on a globe-trotting adventure...for three-hours. Bring a number two pencil.

7. Unsurprising twists. The identity of the secret villain called 'The Teacher' will come as an absolute surprise...if you've never seen or heard of these things called "movies" before.

8. Generally derivative plotting. For good measure (and to ramp up tension in what - let's face it - need not be a chase film...), The Da Vinci Code is peppered with a tinge of The Fugitive (1993), particularly in the character of a dogged police pursuer, and a taste of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) too...specifically in all the Church vandalism. Also - and this is directed at you - Dan Brown -- I've seen this plot before. Back in 1998...well before The Da Vinci Code was a sensation in print, too. On April 17 of that year, the TV series Millennium aired on Fox TV an episode called "Anamnesis." It concerned...the cult of Mary Magdalene! That episode was written by Erin Maher and Kay Reindel, and they must have used some of the same research as Brown did later. All through The Da Vinci Code, as anagrams were breathlessly revealed, I thought more than once of Frank Black (Lance Henriksen). He would have figured the code out long before Langdon...

9. Obvious Economy of Characters. Roger Ebert created a movie rule involving "economy of characters," which means that every character in a movie exists to serve an explicit purpose. Since The Da Vinci Code concerns the "last" heir to Christ (who carries Jesus's blood line...), you can - and will - guess, that one of the main characters is indeed that heir. Personally, I believe in my heart of heart It would have been better had that not been the case . The story would have been much more fun (and more clever; and more realistic;) if Tom Hanks and Amelie's Audrey Tautou doggedly traced the heir of a small town in England, maybe Liverpool, knocked on the door of a little house, and met an overweight, divorced mother of four and delivered the Earth-shattering news. "You're the last living heir to the blood line of Jesus Christ." Instead, of course, one of the film's main characters is both the guardian of the Priori of Scion AND the last heir. And yes, in case you didn't know by now, there are classes that teach screenwriting...and The Da Vinci Code whips out that playbook and follows it to the letter.

Okay - I just spent a lot of space criticizing the movie. Yet I would still give it a C+ or B minus despite all these various and sundry flaws. The Da Vinci Code is entertaining in spots, and the central idea is certainly a revolutionary one. In fact, the notion that a Church conspiracy is hiding the truth of Christ's nature is explosive. Now I fully understand why so many Church elders have been on CNN trying to reinforce the notion that the film is fictional (like they don't have anything better to Darfur, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, etc.). Personally, I never met a conspiracy I didn't like, so I do score The Da Vinci Code some points for asking true believers to open their minds and think just a little differently for two-and-a-half hours. Not to "destroy faith," but to "renew it," as the movie cloyingly suggests. I believe everybody should occasionally examine their faith (or lack thereof), and ask themselves why they believe (or don't believe) and The Da Vinci Code will no doubt continue to spark healthy debate.

Basically, I'm saying that there's a tiny bit of "red meat" with the popcorn presentation of The Da Vinci Code, and I do appreciate that the movie made at least a token attempt to present a progressive, revolutionary idea in a homogenized summer entertainment. I just wish it had all been vetted with more subtlety and skill than what's on hand here. But maybe Ron Howard was trapped by the source material....which based on the movie's flaws...I assume is lousy. In the past, when I've seen movies like Hunt for Red October (1990) or Jurassic Park (1993), they fascinated me so much I went back and read the source material (or re-read it...). In this case, after viewing the film, I have no desire to read Dan Brown's book...the movie wasn't nearly interesting enough for me to invest more time in the story.

Yet I would be lying if I said that - at times - I didn't enjoy the movie, and get wrapped up in the Grail Quest. There's a great scene set in Ian McKellan's study, where McKellan (who is excellent, as usual...) and Hanks debate these glorious and fascinating ideas of faith and our human interpretation of divinity and the like. This scene is giddy, and alive with ideas. It ends too quickly, and seems piped in from another movie entirely. But while it lasts, it's great.

The critical response to The Da Vinci Code has been savage, but for all the wrong reasons. I believe that the critics who caustically attacked it did so because they perceive the movie attacks Christianity and want to be "in" on the bashing. Mainstream critics are pack animals, for the most part. They love to heap it on (especially if a movie features somebody who is "down" at the moment, like Ben Affleck or Kevin Costner).

In truth, they should be attacking The Da Vinci Code because it takes a revolutionary notion and blanderizes it until only the most lunatic religious fringe could possibly find it offensive. It takes fascinating ideas and couches them in long-sacred but tiresome movie cliches, instead of depending a smart, cleverly crafted screenplay. It relies on ciphers instead of real characters, and uses dialogue like a hammer of exposition, bludgeoning audiences with history, but at the same time whizzing by the truly neat stuff.

Again, it's probably a C+ or a B-. As summer entertainment, it's fine, I guess. Here's my personal bias: I actively enjoyed that the movie wasn't populated solely by twenty-year olds. Sometimes I get tired of dealing with our pervasive "youth culture" in movies. Middle-aged people -- even English professors - can have an adventure too. Ian McKellen is getting up there in age, but man, he really carries this movie. It was a (small) joy to see him bring his experience, humor and wisdom to the screen again.


  1. Great review ... I'm avoiding this one for various reasons, but I've enjoyed living vicariously through people who have bothered to see and critique it

  2. John, I'm surprised you didn't mention the last time the so-called "last of Christ's bloodline" was used as a character in a movie-Kevin Smith's "Dogma," with Linda Fiorentino as the "Last Scion."
    And, as we may have discussed in the past, the whole idea of an albino assassin is ludicrous. Albinos, by the nature of their lack of pigment, generally have very poor eyesight, along with a vibration of the eyes known as nystagmus. So, the last person who should be working as an assassin is someone who is legally blind. Unfortunately, this is also a movie (and literary) cliche, having also been used in "Foul Play" in 1978, and a Batman novel,
    "To Stalk A Spectre," by Simon Hawke published in the early 1990s.

  3. Anonymous1:57 AM

    the true bloodline of Christ is closer to you then you think, one of the decendents lives in your state, in a ROYAL city, they are beyond protected to the point that they may not even know there own lineage and you could not get close to them if you tried, want to the grail?

    Go to the royal city, look for the Church with the ROYAL FAMILY STAINED GLASS PORTRAIT then Turn around, look for the 3rd, the 3rd ANK the egyptian ANK, and you might see what you are looking for......But BEWARE you will be watched the minute you enter the city!

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