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Rated 2.97 stars
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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Purgatory Awaits Those Who Play It Safe
by John P. McCarthy

Heaven may await those who play it safe, but Ron Howard and company were too cautious when adapting Dan Brown’s controversial best-seller The Da Vinci Code. It may have seemed like a shrewd tack given the success of the book; and it’s not exactly out of character for the child actor turned director. A workmanlike talent with a knack for picking hot material and good collaborators, Howard doesn’t have a discernible style. Looking back at his opus, there’s nothing to suggest he would turn Brown's novel into celestial cinema.

What ends up on screen is a faithful, slightly mechanical rendering of the theological thriller. Yet due to its incendiary content for Christians, history buffs, and anyone who gives a fig about the course of Western civilization, the film is engaging enough. Expecting popular filmmakers attached to a big Hollywood studio to sort through the book’s claims regarding Jesus’ divinity and the behavior of the Catholic Church is unrealistic. For one thing, the scenario is really no more outlandish than ninety-percent of screen plots. 

Taking Brown’s pot-boiling theological speculation and musings on art at face value is exactly what screenwriter Akiva Goldsman does. This has unfortunate if not dire artistic consequences. To put it simply, the book is clumsily crafted and while Howard is arguably a better director than Brown is a writer, he can’t manage to smooth over the rough spots.  The Da Vinci Code wasn’t great literature and this isn’t a superior movie. 

The chief hurdle Howard had to overcome was cramming in all the historical exposition necessary for the enterprise to make sense or appear to make sense. There are numerous mini-lectures on topics alien to the average moviegoer, such as The Council of Nicaea held in A.D. 325, pagan symbolism, and the Priory of Sion. These are delivered on the fly as the two main characters gallivant through Europe in pursuit of the Holy Grail following a murder at the Louvre, where cryptic clues were left. And there are numerous flashbacks of a personal and world-historical kind that have to be incorporated, or not. The source material isn’t ideal for a swift screen thriller, despite Brown’s ability to fashion a page-turner. A few clumsy moments are unavoidable.

You have to look at what Howard and company could control once they made the decision not to mess around with the story. Conclusion:  no one on either side of the camera truly rises to the occasion. Considered as a whole, the production value is a few latitudes north of adequate. Dan Hanley and Mike Hill -- who often work with Howard and his producing partner Brian Grazer and even won an Oscar for Apollo 13 -- are responsible for shoddy editing, especially during the first half of the picture. They cut away too quickly from scenes, though not for artistic reasons; it’s obvious they were under pressure to trim the long runtime. Cinematographer Salvatore Totino offers undistinguished, dully-lit images. He throws in a few overhead shots to liven things up and the flashbacks have an overexposed look that works intermittently. Hans Zimmer’s score is predictably portentous and quasi-ethereal.

On the acting side, as Harvard professor Robert Langdon, Tom Hanks is in the mildly-depressed mode he puts on for dramatic roles. The best you can say about his performance is that, following Howard’s lead, he doesn’t get in the way. And his haircut doesn’t look half bad; in fact, it’s rather becoming. As Sophie Neveu, Langdon’s partner on the elaborate scavenger hunt, French actress Audrey Tautou appears to have taken the same anti-depressants. One of the great ironies of the book is that despite its claims about Mary Magdalene and celebration of the “sacred feminine,” Sophie is such a weak, passive character. The discrepancy jumps out at you on screen.

The only bad performances are delivered by Paul Bettany as the treacherous albino monk, Silas, and Alfred Molina as his Opus Dei overseer, Bishop Aringarosa.  Both adopt ridiculous villain accents worthy of a music hall comedy or Benny Hill skit. Only Ian McKellen brings some relish to his pivotal role as the free-thinking Grail connoisseur Sir Leigh Teabing. The wealthy eccentric is the book’s most compelling character and McKellen only makes him more fascinating by adding dashes of camp traceable to the legitimate theater.

Whether you find it heretical or not, the movie’s saving grace is the enormous historical and religious significance of Brown’s fundamental claim -- namely, that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and propagated a royal line that the Catholic Church brutally and unsuccessfully conspired to wipe out. Their heirs and this secret were protected by The Knights Templar and other grandees of the aforementioned Priory of Sion -- people like Leonardo Da Vinci and Isaac Newton. You don’t have to be a believer to understand why Christians feel it must be rebutted. It’s not trivial or simply relevant to an intramural battle between Catholic factions. When one key player declares his goal to be bringing the “Church of lies to its knees” you realize this is rough, serious stuff.

Add the frisson of self-mortification, puzzles, sex rituals and corrupt clergy (plus private jets and a secret Swiss Bank account!) and The Da Vinci Code is an engaging property. While the movie can’t sneak up on anyone the way the book did, Howard and his colleagues can’t elide its push and pull, nor obscure the reasons it has spawned a backlash. This only heightens disappointment that it’s not a more vibrant film. 

(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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