Monday, May 22, 2006

The Da Vinci Code

If American filmmaking has an exact geographical middle of the road, a single vanishing point that defines perfectly bland, exceedingly mainstream taste guaranteed to offend no one, this focus is where you will find the filmography of Ron Howard. Never a director to take a risk in terms of style or content, Howard prefers to adapt straight-forward material in as unsurprising and professional a manner as possible. From children's fantasy (The Grinch) to kidnapping thriller (Ransom) to the Western (The Missing) to period sports movie (Cinderella Man), Howard's never encountered a genre he couldn't drain the life out of and render predictably.

Only money could have motivated his decision to direct a big-screen adapation of Dan Brown's best-seller The Da Vinci Code. The film rights to this phenomenon are a license to print money, and Howard and his producing partner Brian Grazer surely salivated at the prospect of marketing a major Tom Hanks movie based on an international smash hit book that opened on the same May weekend all over the world. But the material could not be a worse match for Howard's mushy, safe temperment. I'd rather see Howard direct almost anything - a GG Allin concert film, a live-action Smurfs movie, a 2 hour infomercial for the Egg Wave - than a wacky religious-themed puzzle-obsessed potboiler.

Predictably, Howard and screenwrtier Akiva Goldsman (responsible for A Beautiful Mind, Batman and Robin and other grim death marches) fail to approach the material with any sense of fun whatsoever. Rather than play the story for what it is - a fast-paced pulpy adventure story in the National Treasure vein - Howard insists on turning Brown's disposable prose into Schindler's List. Everything from Hans Zimmer's ponderous score to star Tom Hanks' strict refusal to emote in any way, or even make eye contact with other characters, bogs the film down, making what should be light, entertaining fare into a plodding lesson in Fake European History. And I don't need to see that, because I already scored a 4 on my Fake AP European History exam.

I never thought I'd write this sentence, but the strangest part is that Ron Howard ought to know better. How could anyone think 2.5 hours of half-asleep Tom Hanks shining flashlights around libraries would be entertaining? Ron's been making movies since the early 80's! How could any creative artist have such a poor sense for their own long-time audience?

I had to cross a picket line in order to see the film tonight in Culver City. Several Catholics out front seemed to feel that the movie was blasphemous, insulting Christ and encouraging viewers to lose their faith. These people needn't really worry, any more than they worried Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was going to knock their congreagations to the core. Brown's book and Howard's movie use vaguely historical references as signposts, to keep the audience interested and intrigue them with real-world ramifications for the action. But the entire enterprise unfolds in so unlikely and overheated a manner that I can't imagine anyone genuinely taking the conclusions herein seriously. If, as Ian McKellan darkly intones, The Da Vinci Code really reveals "the greatest secret in human history," we're a pretty weak-ass species when it comes to deception.

Robert Langdon (Hanks) discovers the secret after being called to a murder scene at the Louvre while on a speaking tour in Paris. A professor has been murdered and left a message for Langdon scrawled on the floor in his own blood. Also, he has written several clues in blood on various Da Vinci paintings and left some carvings in his own body. I guess he had some time to kill before he died and didn't have a pen handy. Fortunately, Langdon's a symbologist (probably not a real job) and he's joined by the dead man's granddaughter, clever French cop Sophie (Amelie vet Audrey Tautou), so all the various puzzles left by the old man are dispatched with relatively quickly.

The clues lead Robert and Sophie on a quest for the Holy Grail, which they find out from an aging Grail lore expert (McKellan) isn't a cup at all but represents Mary Magdalene, Jesus' wife.

Howard treats these kinds of twists on the Jesus legend as Earth-shattering revelations, the kind of thing that must be depicted with great reverence and sincerity. I have no idea why he feels this way. Sure, a lot of people take the Jesus story very seriously. But this isn't Passion of the Christ here. He's not adapting Bible stories. This is fiction! Some guy named Dan Brown made it up based on some popular conspiracy theories. Just as the Monty Python guys didn't insist on strict realism and deocrum when depicting the Holy Grail or God in their movie, Howard shouldn't feel like everything needs to be so pious.

What we have is a religious thriller like any other. There's an evil cardinal (Alfred Molina) and his equally evil monk assassin (Paul Bettany) who want to keep the truth about Mary Magdalene a secret. There's not one but two secret, ancient mystical societies battling it out for the future of Christianity. But mostly, the movie's made up of scenes ripped out of any detective or mystery thriller. Hanks and Tautou wander around libraries, cathedrals and catacombs, flashlights at the ready, searching for the next clue that they can solve in as speedy and verbal a manner as possible. Think Seven without the corpses.

Sequences like these, in which characters solve impossibly difficult puzzles with preternatural ease, are always ridiculous. Recent films like Sahara and Tomb Raider have relied heavily on similar devices, and it's always build around some ridiculous gimmick that wouldn't be solvable outside the world of a movie. But that's fine. The fun of these scenes is being presented with a crazy, unsolvable puzzle and then seeing a character work it out with only seconds to spare. But the trick is to whole-heartedly embrace the ridiculousness of the puzzles, to have fun with the clues and the solutions. Watching sad-eyed Tom Hanks work out inscription on Isaac Newton's headstone is about as much fun as watching him solve last Wednesday's New York Times Sudoku. Howard's filming the guy like he's inventing game theory or something. This is why the film gets laughs when it wants to shock and surprise.

Honestly, I have never seen a more dreary, unfocused and lethargic performance from Tom Hanks, ever. I don't always like the guy or his movies. I find Forrest Gump hideously unappealing. I thought he made just about every decision wrong about his character in Catch Me If You Can. But in The Da Vinci Code, he seems barely capable of motivating on delivering his lines. He's just distracted, failing to generate any chemistry with Tautou (who's on auto-pilot herself) or anyone else. He'd need to double his efforts in order to deliver a one-note performance.

The only two performers in the whole film who seem to really get the movie at all are Bettany and McKellan. Mercifully, they both kind of ham it up and try to inject the film with a little bit of personality. McKellan, as Grail scholar Leigh Teabing, does his usual wry, cantankerous old guy job - essentially playing an unmutated, scholarly Magneto - and Bettany falls back on bugging out his eyes and displaying his gruesome albino make-up, but it's more than I can say for anyone else in this dull slog. Jean Reno appears near-catatonic in his few actual scenes that don't involve sitting in the passenger seat of a moving car.

I can sympathize with their plight, because essentially no one is given anything to say or do that doesn't relate directly back to this beast of a plot. There's so much background, so much exposition, and Howard and Goldsman just haven't bothered to do the work of translating the book to the screen. A novel can get away with relying on a lot of exposition and backstory. Michael Crichton books don't usually kickstart the action until around page 200. Until then, you're just hearing about the industry or scientific community in which the action takes place. And Brown's book fills in some of the narrative gaps with doses of art appreciation and European history.

But you can't make a movie where people just pace and tell each other about stuff that happened thousands of years ago. It's just not cinematic at all. The Da Vinci Code has a few (a few!) memorable images - Bettany's monk whipping himself to be closer to God, the camera swooping through the glass triangle at the Louvre - but otherwise just plods along, lecturing anyone who will listen about the Knights Templar.

As if bogged down by all this conspiratorial whatsis, Howard's direction has turned slack and artless. The ugly, grainy, overly-dark cinematography fails to capture any of the beauty or shadowy menace of London or Paris. The pacing seems off, and many sequences take far too long to develop any intensity at all. Sometimes, who scenes will come off awkwardly or seem blatantly illogical.

First and most obviously, most of Brown's novel takes place in the course of one night. The French police summon Langdon to inspect a dead body, he scans for clues throughout the museum, he escapes the cops, finds more clues, meets up with the McKellan character, evades capture again and goes to England, and on and on, all before dawn. The timing makes no sense and stretches credibility to the extreme. This is the sort of thing that you can cheat with on the page, but that simply doesn't work in a movie.

But other logic problems abound. Many of Robert and Sophie's escapes defy reason, particularly as they exit Teabing's plane in view of the police. Robert, we're told, suffers from claustrophobia but manages to navigate prolonged periods in enclosed spaces with relative ease. Characters appear and disappear at will depending on the convenience of the plot, and the action climax develops in a way that's extremely convenient and anti-climactic.

In fact, Howard botches all the action scenes in the film. In shooting an early car chase scene, in which Tautou drives backwards into oncoming traffic, Howard just jerks the camera back and forth, seemingly at random. Bettany's monk also pops in and out of scenes with impossible stealth and staggering strength yet can be taken down later by an 80 year old crippled man when the plot requires.

Worst of all, though, as I've said, is the relentlessly dour tone. This is Ron Howard's idea of a summer movie? Really? I should never have broken the vow I made after exiting the theater to A Beautiful Mind..."I'll never pay to see another Ron Howard movie again!" Why would I turn my back on all my ideals?

1 comment:

Sharkbait said...

Yep. You're absolutely right.