No Masterpiece Here

What's up? Tom Hanks is symbologist Robert Langdon and Audrey Tautou is cryptologist Sophie Neveu in
What's up? Tom Hanks is symbologist Robert Langdon and Audrey Tautou is cryptologist Sophie Neveu in "The Da Vinci Code." (By Simon Mein -- Sony Pictures)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 19, 2006

The movie Sony Pictures has been desperately trying to position as "the most controversial thriller of the year" turns out to be about as thrilling as watching your parents do a Sudoku puzzle.

"The Da Vinci Code," Ron Howard's hotly anticipated adaptation of Dan Brown's phenom of a bestseller, plays it so safe and on-the-nose that any high emotion engendered by its provocative premise is quickly squelched. In Howard's methodical hands, Brown's story of a frantic, pre-dawn, multi-country search for the Holy Grail unfolds not as a pulse-quickening action-adventure film laced with theological intrigue, but a surprisingly bland procedural with a particularly well-pedigreed MacGuffin.

Tom Hanks looks startlingly pasty and impassive as the story's protagonist, dashing Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, who is inexplicably summoned to the Louvre while at a book-signing in Paris. There, he is confronted with the corpse of an elderly man who has carved a pentacle on his chest, and who has scrawled a series of anagrams and numerical puzzles to help identify not his killer but what his killer was trying to find. Langdon is soon joined by a pretty cryptologist named Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou), who has her own professional and personal interest in the case; together, they embark on a journey from Paris to its outskirts to London and finally Scotland in what turns out to be a scavenger hunt of historical, even metaphysical, proportions.

But most filmgoers probably know all this, because most of them have probably read "The Da Vinci Code," a starchily written potboiler that despite its graceless prose and turgid expository digressions has sold more than 40 million copies. Fans of the book will understandably be curious to see how it fares on the big screen; this is a book so movie-ready that it needed only a few "Fade Ins" and "Fade Outs" to qualify as a shooting script. If Howard's "Da Vinci Code" doesn't take the story in any radical new directions (no one will object to the understandable cuts he has made in narrative and characters), he delivers what the book's admirers presumably want: a live-action illustration of the story they've had in their heads for three years.

He does that with perhaps a surfeit of sobriety and taste, and it looks like he's tried to soothe some of the misgivings Christian groups have expressed about Brown's questioning of Jesus Christ's divinity. Unlike the book, in this "Da Vinci Code" Langdon throws in lots of interjections reminding viewers that this is all just speculation; and by the film's final couple of twists, the filmmakers have made an earnest case for faith. Even the film's putative baddie, an albino named Silas (Paul Bettany), a member of the Opus Dei organization, comes to be seen as more of a dupe than an out-and-out villain.

Bettany's sympathetic performance in a thankless role is one of the best in the film, as is that of Ian McKellen, who delivers a crafty turn as an obsessive Grail hunter. While Hanks and Tautou sleepwalk through their performances, McKellen provides a much-needed spark of mischief. (One quibble many readers will have with Howard's adaptation is how he has made Neveu -- who in the book is just as intellectually adroit as her male counterpart -- into little more than a doe-eyed odalisque. It's a particularly ironic choice for a story that is predicated on the feminist premise that not just Eve but Mary Magdalene and countless women after her were framed.)

Having endured the wrath of Cannes this week, "The Da Vinci Code" is already being buzzed about as possessing what might be the most risible Big Reveal in recent memory, if not cinema history; with its preposterous punch line and the awkward silence that follows, it's a moment that begs for an "I'm Going to Disney World!" A touch of playfulness wouldn't have hurt "The Da Vinci Code," which, far from being the super-serious drama its critics have anticipated, is a relatively formulaic quest adventure in the tradition of "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Matrix," both of whose philosophical underpinnings provide interesting food for thought rather than earth-shattering doctrinal pronouncements.

Indeed, if Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman ("A Beautiful Mind") had only seen the potential for some intellectually subversive fun in "The Da Vinci Code," the movie could have been a taut, unusually smart thriller. What's more, by dispensing with a few painterly flashbacks and windy academic speeches, it just might have bucked the current trend in Hollywood and clocked in at under two hours. Now there's a Grail.

The Da Vinci Code (149 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for disturbing images, violence, some nudity, thematic material, brief drug references and sexual content.

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