starring Tom Hanks, Audrey Tautou, Ian McKellen, Jean Reno
screenplay by Akiva Goldsman, based on the novel by Dan Brown
directed by Ron Howard
by Walter Chaw The greatest threat that Dan Brown's novel, and now Ron Howard's film of the same, poses to spirituality is the same threat that any bad art presents the human soul. The Da Vinci Code is a retarded attempt to summarize painstaking scholarship and liturgy into broadly digestible gruel. In the eyes of many, it's what the Christian Bible is to centuries of pagan mythology and millennia of cultural anthropology: the greatest stories ever told, retold in a form that illiterates and the gullible can appreciate. It's nothing more and nothing less than The Celestine Prophecy (itself adapted for the silver screen this annus mirabilus) for fallen Catholics and armchair intellectuals: books so poorly-written, so bereft of poetry and grace, that they cannot offend (or repel) the unschooled and the indiscriminate with their oblique-ness, each about poetry and grace so brusquely raped and "decoded" that the "conspiracy"--the great mystery of great art--is laid bare as bad thriller material. It's skipping forward to read the last page of the book--and the wrong book at that. Is it really ironic that Ron Howard, who has never directed a graceful scene, has never had a film with a hint of a whiff or subtext (his version of "genius at work" is a holodeck (see: A Beautiful Mind and now The Da Vinci Code)) is the chosen one for the adaptation (along with partner in extreme, middlebrow-pleasing mendacity Akiva Goldsman) of an obscenely popular book (60-million copies sold and counting) that makes anyone with a half a brain crazy with grief for the plight of the sublime in our culture?
This may be a sign of the apocalypse, though not in the way the zealots on either side would have you believe. The danger of both the book and the movie is that they have people believing they've read literature or seen a film of substance when this just isn't the case. It's no great secret that our culture has become "dumbed down" (I'm not surprised that many wear this as a badge of brute honour)--but the real cultural fallout is not how stupid and venal our most popular cultural artifacts are (they always were, after all), it's in our collective willingness to buy what we're sold, wholesale. And that infects more than the cineplex: "intelligence" is a maligned ideal and ironic in most public usage--using the correct words and referencing anything from before the last five years is pretentious. When we want philosophy we go to sub-Carlos Castanedas like Dan Brown. When we want uplift we go to sub-Stanley Kramers like Paul Haggis and Ron Howard. When we want moral leadership, we look to calcified, devalued, debunked pundits like the Vatican, George W. Bush, and Oprah.
Start in The Da Vinci Code with the mythical discipline of "symbology": a malapropism invented by idiots so as not to confuse their flock with real words like "semiotics" or "epistemology." It's like calling psychiatry "talk-about-it-ology." (Defenders of the text beware, because the thing you defend purports to be in love with the importance of language.) Our good Harvard professor Langdon (Tom Hanks, acting throughout like he's trying to pass a stone) is a professor of "Symbology," you see, and he opens The Da Vinci Code giving a Power Point lecture in Paris about how first "symbology" is the study of symbols (duh), and then--those who don't read (or drive, or walk around their town), prepare to be startled--how symbols are a form of language.
The rest of the film follows this pattern: a term or person or thing is introduced and someone will explain it and then someone will use it in a sentence. Sir Isaac Newton was a scientist who "discovered" gravity; Sir Isaac Newton angered the Church. When Langdon hijacks a Blackberry to access Google, he narrates himself typing in key words as well as his ostensible reasons for using those key words before someone else explains to him why his fuzzy search keeps bringing up some guy named "Alexander Pope." Langdon isn't talking to himself for his own benefit: Langdon's dialogue is Howard/Goldsman's message to us that they think we're incredibly, unbelievably dense and desperately in need of a hand to hold through every tiny step of this undercooked thriller (trust no one, indeed) and the specious scholarship holding it all together by the skin of its controversy. Langdon, as it happens, also looks like an idiot because he has to not alienate moviegoers, thus it's lucky that everyone else in the film acts like an idiot, too. (What these mutual declarations of ignorance really do is drag the proceedings out to a deadening 149 minutes.) It says volumes to me that Catholic church sees something as inept as The Da Vinci Code as a threat: talk about knowing your audience.
The source postures itself as a reaction to the violent paternalism of the traditional church, and yet its main female character, Sophie (Audrey Tautou--and of course her character's name is "Sophie" and of course she's played by Audrey Tautou), a noted cryptographer, is completely helpless throughout to solve any puzzles and made not once, but twice, the squealing prize at the end of a hostage-takers knife/gun. She and Langdon go gallivanting around Europe, acquiring sage Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen--of course and of course) along the way. A grail scholar, Teabing--who, with his two canes and feral, mad scientist energy, reminds me a lot of the middle stage of Brundlefly--is searching for the secret of the Holy Grail, which, The Da Vinci Code implies, is just like the Jewel in The Jewel of the Nile. (Sad to note that the two films are not dissimilar.) If you have a working pre-frontal, you can puzzle out the thriller elements of this piece of shit within ten minutes. If your internal narrative bogs down, there's always the sudden appearance of a murderous albino monk/hitman (Paul Bettany) to defibrillate the wheezing ol' geezer. Or, better yet, how about another inutile expository flashback to hold the place of actual character development, lest Howard, heaven forfend, invoke his arch nemesis "nuance"?
Whenever Langdon is confronted with a puzzle, he provides the only tension ("It's meaningless...unless!"), and the solution is either invariably broad and breathtakingly obvious (Encyclopedia Brown could have solved this puzzle in two pages) or forever occluded and dismissed with a pursed lip and a terse nod. Hanks seems lost with this material; no question Howard is. He shoots a street poster of "Les Miserables: The Opera" and then posits French gendarme Jean Reno as the film's ideological Valjean. It's juvenile and it's desperate, but most of all, it demonstrates that The Grinch, EdTV, The Missing, Cinderella Man, Far and Away, A Beautiful Mind, Backdraft, and so on and so forth, in all their ignorance, misogyny, and slick facility, were no accident. Find in The Da Vinci Code the perfect storm of every personal, creative weakness that Howard, Goldsman, and Brown have managed to slide by the world, brought to the proscenium in stark, ugly light. That loud gasp is the exhalation of millions of fans of the book, blaming the film for popping their balloon when the truth of it is that it was never full of anything but torpid hot air in the first place. The picture's not without value, then, if it can make a joke of the book--the fear, though, is that it makes a martyr of it. Originally published: May 19, 2006.