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Rated 2.97 stars
by 2495 people

ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Tough Adaptation Code to Crack
by Jeffrey Chen

When I read Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, I kept thinking it would make a fun movie -- a simple chase structure containing an intriguing mystery about exposing a dark secret of Christianity. But I obviously didn't think about it hard enough; in hindsight, this book must've been quite difficult to adapt. Its biggest challenge comes from the fact that the most suspenseful portions of the book are the ones where the main secret is being slowly unfolded, which happens intermittently in the main character's head or when he has a quiet moment to explain things to his associate for the evening. And since the ideas behind the secret form the meat of the novel, those characters, serving as mouthpieces, suffer from being rather thinly drawn.

Unfortunately, in the movie that's emerged, all of this shows. The Da Vinci Code, running at an unwieldy two-and-a-half hours, doesn't find a way to create the balance between being a film with strong cinematic ingredients and being faithful to the book. It skews much more towards the latter, and this means adopting weaknesses that could only be enhanced when put on the screen. Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou play Robert Langdon and Sophie Neveu, and I don't think I've ever seen them have less to work with. The characters were written with more concern for delivering information than feeling like people, and instead of fixing this flaw for the film, they've practically been transferred one-to-one. For a movie, such a move can be deadly.

By contrast, Ian McKellen injects his role with a dose of much-needed color. His character brings some welcome life to the middle portion of the film, thus giving the whole of it the shape of a bell curve -- the movie reaches a peak entertainment level in the middle, while remaining somewhat flat both at the beginning and at the end. Pacing becomes an obstacle in telling this story, as the action sequences come and go while certain talking scenes drag on in a completely functional, expository way. Minor characters flutter in and out giving little sense of the weight they should be lending to the narrative.

The major pacing problem comes from an insufficient build-up to what I would call the story's main reveal. This climax doesn't occur where it usually would, i.e. at the end -- it happens in that middle section, which further explains why that section is the most interesting part. But we aren't led to that moment so much as we have it sprung upon us. The "biggest cover-up in human history" deserves to be approached with some anticipation, but the movie doesn't drop enough hints about it along the way, doesn't entice us with a possibility (although I'm trying to avoid too many direct comparisons with the novel -- which has an unfair advantage because it doesn't need to conform to a runtime --  I can't help mentioning that this was something the book was able to do well). The actions that precede it move perfunctorily and rather hurriedly (the poor Louvre at night barely has a chance to register as an awesome locale) -- there was so much character movement to cover that, for example, the essential ideas of the historical perspectives on the role of women aren't given a chance to preface the eventual revelation.  

To the conspiracy story's credit, the reveal itself is fascinating enough to convey what it wants to convey, i.e. that religion has an origin and, by accepting it dogmatically, we do ourselves a disservice in the pursuit of human truths. The so-called controversy that the novel and, now, the movie heats up isn't so much more than a call to have an open mind, particularly within an aspect of the human experience -- spirituality -- that has operated and thrived, on many historical occasions, through closed-mindedness. The message still comes through, even if the movie around it doesn't quite figure out how to deliver it more thrillingly.

But even then, director Ron Howard can't leave well enough alone, practically handholding his audience, telling them that it's ok to doubt and it's ok to believe what you believe. The ending of the movie feels as if it's trying hard not to offend -- the message of the story asks us to wake up, but the movie would also like us to be able to sleep peacefully.

What The Da Vinci Code needed was a visionary decision and a commitment to it, but this wishy-washiness and its general tonal flatness betray a clock-punching mentality the cast and crew seem to have adopted for its production (contrast this with Howard's last project, Cinderella Man, which, despite its own big flaws, still conveyed a tangible love of filmmaking behind it). Overall, the film just goes through the motions and doesn't try to make any waves, an irony that becomes more visible when we consider how much noise the novel has made and continues to make.

(Released by Columbia Pictures and rated "PG-13" for disturbing images, violence, some nudity, thematic material, brief drug references and sexual content.)

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