Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Greatest Cover-up in Human History Revealed...So What?

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - You know you're watching a different kind of summer movie thriller when a line like "I have to get to a library fast!" passes for something genuinely heroic.

That line is uttered at one point by Robert Langdon, the "hero" played by Tom Hanks in Ron Howard's new film adaptation of Dan Brown's bestseller The Da Vinci Code (**½ out of ****), which I saw last night in a fairly packed theater at AMC Loews Rt. 1.

Before I go into the nitty-gritty about the film, I must confess: I am probably one of the few in the whole world who have not read Dan Brown's enormously popular book. Or, at least, I haven't read the whole thing, cover to cover. Last week, I tried to read as much of it as I can before seeing the movie last night, but I wasn't able to get too far: I was too busy trying to find summer employment (and, I guess, updating this blog), and so I only got up to around pg. 150 or so, with Langdon and Sophie Neveu just escaping from the Louvre after finding "so dark the con of man" written on Da Vinci's "Madonna of the Rocks." And then I saw the movie.

Well, first, a word about the book---or, at least, as much as I've read of it (which, I admit, isn't much, so take the following with a grain of salt). Here's one thing I can say about it: it's, at the very least, well-researched. But, for a book that tackles symbolism in art and religion---heavy subjects, both---the novel, at this point, seems mostly rather graceless and pedestrian in its prose. Brown's book seems meant more to be digested as a fast-paced thriller (I've spoken to people who say they read the book in two or three days), while the nuggets of information clumsily thrown into the mix here and there are meant to give the whole thing a surface sheen of erudition. Not that the historical information he throws in aren't interesting, to be sure. It's just that, when it comes out of characters' mouths the way Brown writes it in the novel, it merely seems like dialogue no person would ever naturally speak.

It's a problem that Akiva Goldsman, the screenwriter of the film adaptation, hasn't quite been able to solve, although I certainly appreciate the effort. Onscreen, the film still seems fairly talky and clunky in the way it tries to naturally impart important historical information through dialogue.

That didn't bother me a great deal, to be honest: Ron Howard has never been the most visually imaginative of film directors. And this film is, after all, meant to be an intellectual rather than visceral thriller, all about the process of uncovering truth---a scholarly academic's version of the classic police procedural---rather than bombarding with you mindless action scenes and violence. On that level, I think The Da Vinci Code more or less works. At the very least, it kept me reasonably involved for its approximately 150-minute length---but then, I haven't read the entire book, so many of the twists in the plot came as genuine surprises to me. (I wonder if the professional critics who found the film dull were simply bored because they could anticipate every turn of the plot, having read the book.)

Still, The Da Vinci Code came as a slight disappointment to me especially after all the controversy generated by the film coming from the Vatican and other Catholic religious organizations, all of them crying out at the film's alleged inaccuracy and errors.

There's a hint of genuine subversion in the film, which suggests that certain Catholic monks are willing to commit self-righteous murder in trying to cover-up a long-held secret about Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene---a secret that gives women more power in the grand scheme of things than many Catholics have been led to believe all these years---that could shake the faith of Catholics everywhere. (And we all know Catholics don't need any more faith-shaking after the recent string of sex-abuse scandals.) Religion, as many people are aware, have always been a source of violence and conflict, and Dan Brown, in his novel, must have used that simple fact as the fuel for his admittedly intriguing fantasies about ruthless killer monks, action-hero intellectuals, and centuries-long conspiracies of suppression.

But disappointingly, the film never really makes much out of these potentially troubling bits. The Da Vinci Code, for all its talkiness and play at intellectuality, never generates much heat and never probes very deeply into the issues it raises. (Maybe the book went deeper. What do some of you readers think, should I try to finish the rest of the novel now that I've seen the movie? Yeah, now I'm shamelessly trying to baldly elicit on my blog, hehe, since no one seems to want to comment on my blog since my second post.) Instead, the movie remains tasteful and safe throughout, content to merely play the role of intellectual summer movie thriller. (If Ron Howard didn't already prove that he wasn't a director to tackle deep, intellectual subjects in the way he treated schizophrenia---as a plot device---in his 2001 Oscar-winner A Beautiful Mind...)

Nevertheless, I would be lying if I said I didn't find The Da Vinci Code diverting on its summer movie thriller level. At its best, it offers the real pleasures of a good detective story, and it has been eloquently photographed by Salvatore Totino in earthy, brownish tones that recall a Leonardo Da Vinci painting. In fact, The Da Vinci Code may be one of Howard's more visually interesting films, especially in his use of flashbacks: not the lengthy digressions in Brown's book, but concise visual bursts shot with oversaturated film stock. And, as far as the performances go, the movie is pretty much stolen by Ian McKellen, hamming it up and having some fun in his role as Leigh Teabing, an authority on the Holy Grail. McKellen suggests a character who has a lot of fun being an intellectual---which is more than can be said for an uncharacteristically stiff Tom Hanks. He isn't bad, I guess---I mean, is he ever bad?---but he's seriously hampered by the fact that Robert Langdon, simply put, makes for a pretty colorless hero, at least in the film. He hasn't been written with much inner life (except for one traumatic experience which explains his claustrophobia). He's more a convenient plot device than anything else, really: he has the right knowledge at certain points, but he seems to keep an intellectual distance from everything he does (and I mean everything).

The Da Vinci Code is an entertaining, well-made film, but by the end nothing seems to resonate with any real emotional or intellectual force. It's, sad to say, a sham of a movie: it's not nearly as intelligent or probing as it seems to think it is. By the end of it, in spite of all its religious talk, and in spite of all its twists and turns, one might not unreasonably react with a measure of indifference to it all. (So clerics are willing to commit murder and then justify it to themselves as doing God's work---so what?) It may make for a superior two-and-a-half-hours worth of summer entertainment, but personally, I'd say you could do just as well, if not better, getting to your local libarary. Fast!

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