Heaven & Dearth
With Clarity So Scarce, Trying to Divine 'Angels' Is No Mean Feat

By John Anderson
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, May 15, 2009

Novelist Dan Brown, whose "Angels & Demons" is such a slab of cheese it ought to come with a box of crackers, has fueled his most successful potboilers with the mysteries of the Catholic Church. The church, it turns out, has nothing on the workings of Ron Howard.

In bringing Brown's pre-"Da Vinci Code" novel to the screen -- and praying for another $750 million payday -- the director has decided that plot, character and motivations should be treated like the Third Secret of Fatima. If you've read the book, you'll merely be confused. If you haven't, you'll think Tom Hanks is speaking Latin.

There are enjoyable distractions, of course, including Rome itself, the glories of the Vatican, people flying through the air, priceless art reduced to dust, and guns going off in church. But the script by David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman contains so much explanation that one has to assume the target audience is the same as Dora the Explorer's -- which perhaps just shows the anti-cinematic character of Brown's story.

It's a standard literary technique for an author to lard his prose with obscure detail, to immerse a reader in atmosphere. Brown does this, and then explains everything he's told you. Koepp and Goldsman adopt the Brown tactic (they have to), but take it one step further, explaining everything via dialogue. The result is that characters are constantly telling each other things they should already know, translating foreign words into English in the middle of conversations, and then explaining everything again.

The effect? Supposedly sophisticated characters become mere delivery systems for arcane information that Howard can't otherwise get into his story, and upon which all the thrills and chills depend. And then the movie ends.

And not a moment too soon. Hanks, reprising (or is it "pre-prising"?) his "Da Vinci" role as Harvard iconographer-symbologist Robert Langdon, looks game but uncomfortable. The script actually comes alive only when it departs from Brown, allowing Hanks to play a Koepp-Goldsman line for a laugh. But what the movie is supposed to accomplish -- laying out a fairly complex mystery in a way that creates suspense -- is precisely what it doesn't do.

As "A&D's" many readers know, Langdon is recruited by a mysterious emissary of a mysterious biotech firm to help explain the mysterious death of a mysterious scientist whose chest was branded by his killer with "Illuminati," the name of an ancient league of science-minded elites. The Illuminati were dedicated to the destruction of the Vatican and its anti-Galilean ethos. Has the group, long thought dead, resurfaced? Langdon is stunned that: (1) anyone knows what the Illuminati are, (2) that they might still exist, and (3) that the group would assassinate a man of science.

But what the killer is after is the antimatter recently developed in the dead man's lab. He intends to use it to level St. Peter's Basilica, but -- and here's where things really get complicated -- not until four kidnapped cardinals, who happen to be in town for a papal election, are murdered in a brutal, ritualized fashion. Thankfully that process is prolonged just enough for Langdon to race around the Eternal City, desperately trying to solve the peculiar puzzle before the murders are carried out.

Some of the changes that have occurred between book and movie are revealing: In the novel, which was published in 2000, the villain was an Arab. Not anymore. One of the four kidnapped cardinals is now black -- an astute move, given how closely an African cardinal reportedly came to winning the last papal election. And Olivetti (Pierfrancesco Favino), the Swiss Guard officer who is so antagonistic to Langdon in the book, is now a sympathetic Vatican cop.

Mercifully, there's no romance fabricated between Hanks and his much younger co-star Ayelet Zurer, who plays Vittoria, the intrepid physicist whose purpose is to fill in the gaps in Langdon's science education (and ours). There's no chemistry there, anyway.

As they embark on their frantic mission to save the center of Roman Catholicism, the two encounter a young papal assistant (Ewan McGregor), a suspiciously churlish Vatican policeman (Stellan Skarsgard) and an imperious cardinal (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who is trying to keep the papal electors together while Langdon saves their bacon.

Just in case anyone thinks that the international character of the cast has something to do with brotherhood and ecumenism, the leaden "Da Vinci Code" made more than twice as much money overseas as in the States, and the "A&D" cast reflects its global aspirations -- McGregor is Scottish playing Irish; Zurer is Israeli playing Italian; Skarsgard is Swedish playing German. The filmmakers might have faith in their story. But they also know that God helps those who help themselves.

Angels & Demons (138 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for sequences of violence, disturbing images and thematic material.

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