A limp adaptation of the bestseller would try the patience of a saint.
At least they have some controversy going for them. The makers of "The Da Vinci Code" will need all the newsmaking discord they can muster to turn this leaden religio-historic thriller into box-office gold. Ron Howard's adaptation of Dan Brown's bestseller is punishingly long, dramatically overwrought and fatally short on the thrills we demand from summertime blockbusters.
Luckily for the filmmakers, everyone everywhere is talking about Tom Hanks' hair.
That bizarre coif, the sort of collar-tickling backsweep that "Pulp Fiction's" Vincent Vega might adopt if he were a Harvard lecturer, commands our attention through dreary scenes of exposition as Hanks' character, Prof. Robert Langdon, probes art history, mythology and the annals of Christianity for clues to the murder of a renowned Louvre curator.
A shadowy, powerful conspiracy frames Langdon as the prime suspect in order to perpetuate "the greatest coverup in human history," whose purpose is hinted at in several of Da Vinci's paintings. With the aid of Sophie Neveu (pouty-lipped Audrey Tautou), a French cryptologist, he races from Paris to London to evade killers, prove his innocence and make it to his next lecture and book-signing.
Langdon, a scholarly fellow who breaks into claustrophobic trembles at the prospect of stepping into an elevator, is a far cry from his whip-cracking archaeologist predecessor Indiana Jones. Langdon's notion of derring-do is zipping through an anagram in record time or explicating the conflicts between pagans and Christians in fourth-century Rome. This may be the only action film in which the hero shouts, "I have to get to a library, fast!" Or where most of the scenes are shot in hushed museums, cathedrals and mansions so dimly lit that the characters seem to be constantly fighting not to merge with the decor.
The secret placing Langdon's life in peril involves clandestine forces in the Catholic Church, suppressed gospels, the Holy Grail and the divinity of Jesus. Fiction has carte blanche to offend, invent villains and falsify history for dramatic effect, but the film, like the novel, artistically sabotages itself through melodramatic overkill. With its albino assassin/monk Silas, villainous bishops and portrayal of the conservative Catholic group Opus Dei as a murderous cult, the movie might as well be titled "The Protocols of the Elders of the Vatican."
Translating the story from page to screen highlights its absurdity. As Silas, Paul Bettany has the physical beauty of a fallen angel, but standing out on city streets with his snow-white skin and medieval monk's robes, he's an awfully conspicuous hit man. Langdon is revealed as a rather lifeless hero, with little to do but furrow his brows in concentration and urge the villains threatening him with guns not to shoot. Sophie offers no romantic interest, tagging along mostly to help advance the plot. Whenever the filmmakers suspect we might be losing our grip on the complex story, Sophie asks Langdon to spell out what's going on. Only that grand old ham Ian McKellen builds up consistent comedic and emotional interest as a wealthy scholar with a passion for Grail lore.
In the end, "The Da Vinci Code" isn't about foiling assassins, solving murder mysteries or deciphering the works of the Old Masters, but about faith. As one character asks, "Who is God? Who is man? How many have been murdered over this question?" In the end, all Langdon and the filmmakers can offer is a shrug and the cop-out, "All that matters is what you believe."
The setup: A Harvard symbols expert (Tom Hanks) looks for clues to a murder and a centuries-long religious conspiracy in Leonardo's artworks.
What works: The film is agreeably faithful to Dan Brown's bestseller.
What doesn't: Many of the book's conceits look absurd onscreen. A towering albino monk goes unnoticed on the streets of Paris and London? Not likely.
Great line: Surrounded by police who suspect him of serious crimes, an unflappable English billionaire (Ian McKellen) wryly asks, "Did that old cannabis charge catch up with me?"
Rating: PG-13 for disturbing images, violence, nudity, thematic material, drug references and sexual content. In English and subtitled French, Spanish and Latin.
Colin Covert 612-673-7186