When New England novelist Dan Brown sat down in 2003 to write "The Da Vinci Code," he probably never guessed that in less than three years his controversial thriller would sell more than 60 million copies and be translated into 44 languages. When Academy Award-winning director Ron Howard ("A Beautiful Mind") began crafting the film version for Sony Pictures in June 2005, he was probably hoping it would make up for his previous box-office flop "Cinderella Man."
Readers of "The Da Vinci Code" are flocking to the movie, judging by this past weekend's box-office receipts. I must admit that my exposure to Brown's novel was limited to the book-on-tape version: nonetheless, the easy "read" was quite a "page-turner."
The basic premise is one very enigmatic cocktail: one part detective story and one part conspiracy theory. Tom Hanks ("Big") somewhat successfully translates from page to screen the rigid and subdued intensity of Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon. Homicide investigator Bezu Fache (Jean Reno, "Hotel Rwanda") awkwardly escorts Langdon from a book signing in Paris. The aloof academic is stunned when he realizes that he is the prime suspect in the macabre murder of Jacques Sauniere, head curator of the Louvre.
With the help of French government cryptologist Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou, "Amelie"), the puzzled American shakes the police and proceeds to follow a series of mystic messages from art gallery to Swiss bank vault to Scottish castle. It's almost as if the board game "Clue" somehow bred with "Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego?" The film only begins to get interesting when the polio-stricken British historian Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen, "X-Men United") joins the multinational party.
Swooping cinematography by Salvatore Totino ("Cinderella Man") and a wonderful musical score by Hans Zimmer ("Batman Begins") skillfully support both the sinister and majestic themes of the movie. Alas, an erratic screenplay by Akiva Goldsman (a veteran of disappointments "Lost In Space" and "Batman and Robin") refuses to establish an even pace, whipping its viewers through short car chases and then forcing them through laborious library dissertations that only true "Code" nerds would appreciate.
The flashbacks are well put together, but they would have been more coherent if they had come with the opening credits instead of being randomly sprinkled throughout the picture. One unforgivable flashback blooper shows a desperate Mary Magdalene fleeing the pristine city of Jerusalem, complete with the golden Dome of the Rock (which was actually built centuries later by Muslims). This historical footnote may only be evident to ancient history buffs, but it makes the film seem careless with history even apart from its fabrications.
This leaves us with the cast of the film, which is all that holds this flimsy, albeit beautifully packaged, film together. Tom Hanks gasps, perspires and gives his traditional token shout or two. (I kept waiting for him to bark, "There's no crying in the Louvre!") Reno plays a man who is both a conflicted parishioner and a bad cop as he doggedly follows his quarry. Ian McKellen provides comic relief through his winsome portrayal of Holy Grail enthusiast Leigh Teabing. Audrey Tautou is young and cute, but a little too helpless—she's just a poor female led through churches and castles by two older men. The Sophie Neveu of the book seemed to be more of a Glock-wielding sociopath with the personal ferocity of "Underworld" vamp Kate Beckinsale.
Some religious figures have criticized the 149-minute film for its portrayal of many fundamental aspects of Christianity. An ancient, Gnostic rumor of an extramarital affair between Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene is the basis of the film, and for once, many Catholics and Protestants are united in their outrage. The Catholic institution Opus Dei is presented as a conspiratorial organization with assassins trotting the globe to protect mystical secrets.
I will simply close by quoting a line from the movie, when Teabing gleefully quips, "God uses us all." Yet, it is the "Da Vinci Code" that uses God, as a cartoonish prop in a forgettable thriller. One can hardly blame Christians for objecting.
The Da Vinci Code is an excellent book, and though, I haven't seen the movie yet, I have been pleased to hear from friends how much it stays true to the book. I find myself cheering for the Dan Brown's of the world. In researching his life, it was clear to me how much his journey mirrored that of J. K. Rowling of the Harry Potter series. For that matter, even Stephen King. When you believe so much in your vision---regardless of what your critics say---at the end of the day you feel better by going with your gut.
Spending as much time on the bestselling lists as all three authors have shows that they made the right decision. And the public is rewarding them for it.
- c a webb