How Dull the Con of Ron
by John Murphy
I haven’t read The Da Vinci Code. Since about a trillion people have, I suppose I should feel out of the loop. Having just seen the movie, though, I think I’ll stick with Umberto Eco. Enduring Ron Howard’s dull and ponderous adaptation gave me the feeling I’m not missing anything. And though I don’t doubt Howard’s spiritual karma took a hit when he attached his name to this soulless project, he should reserve his most sincere mea culpa for committing the worst cinematic sin of all: boring his audience.
It’s not that the movie is bad. It might have been more entertaining if it was. Instead, DVC has that depressing kind of competency which signals lack of conviction married to bold-faced greed. The sets are big and expensive, but nothing interesting happens in them. The actors are top-notch, but the script doesn’t supply them with human beings to play. Casting Alfred Molina as a dour, menacing bishop, or Jean Reno as the proverbial dogged police inspector, is like hiring Placido Domingo to sing “Every Breath You Take” at your wedding. Why? Actors of Molina and Reno’s caliber could play these cardboard characters in their sleep, and there is something oddly comatose about their performances.
And what about Tom Hanks, the beloved American Everyman? Hanks’ prominent brow (crowned by a mop of lank, greasy hair), stoically refuses to unfurrow throughout the film, and generally does his acting for him. All the part requires is for Hanks to stand around looking confused-slash-constipated, and occasionally rearrange letters or solar systems in his head. That sort of thing might work in a book, but Robert Langdon struck me as a curiously listless movie hero. He hardly does anything. Howard even manages to dim the glow of Audrey Tatou, so adorable in the 2002 French film, Amelie, but who here has the pallid grimace of a migraine-sufferer.
And who could blame her? The plot gives me a headache just thinking about it. The gist is this (for the other three people in the world who have not read the book): Harvard symbologist, Robert Langdon (Hanks), and French cryptologist, Sophie Neveu (Tatou), are on the trail of the Holy Grail. On their trail is an albino monk, Silas, member of Opus Dei. The movie doesn’t make it clear if he’s bad because he’s a monk, an Opus Dei monk, an albino, a self-flagellator, or just because he kills nuns. Probably all of the above. Our intrepid Grail-seeking heroes have to crack a whole bunch of codes and riddles along the way, while Langdon gets stuck with the unenviable task of declaiming mind-numbingly ridiculous exposition. “Is it possible?” Sophie asks after one of the movie’s myriad mock-revelations. “Well,” answers Langdon, “It’s not impossible.”
As the story lurched from one clumsy plot-point to the next—always followed by perfunctory chase sequences—I kept hoping the latest “twist” would mercifully prove the last, so I could go home and do something comparatively fun, like the dishes. Only the great Ian McKellen, paying the rent with his delicious performance as Sir Leigh Teabing, Grail scholar, gives the movie a much-needed jolt. His enthusiastic scenery chewing provides the film with its few moments of twinkle-in-the-eye fun. Had the rest of the cast and crew taken Mckellen’s cue, DVC might have been campy fun, instead of a laborious bore.
DVC’s ho-hum story and paper-thin characters would have little interest outside the spectacular controversy the book invited by attacking the heart of Christian faith. Is the movie anti-Catholic? To which I ask: is the Pope Catholic? The Catholic Church is to DVC what the Nazis were to the Indiana Jones series. According to this film, Church officials have nothing better to do than shoot pool in plush (though shadowy) libraries, speak in hushed tones about secrets kept for thousands of years, and arrange the murders of anyone who gets in their way. At least most of their conversations are in Latin, which lends their dialogue a gravity that the lines spoken in English certainly do not have.
DVC is more than anti-Catholic, though. Any movie with a plot that hinges on Christ having married Mary Magdalene and spawned a line of dissolute French monarchs (oh, and was also definitely not God) safely falls within the parameters of a more general kind of anti-Christianity. However, DVC is also anti-plausibility, anti-character development, anti-subtlety, and anti-fun. So I’m all for anything this movie is against. Frankly, I’m more offended by the ways in which the film insults my intelligence than I am by the ways in which it insults my faith.
Anyone would learn in an introductory art history class that “Da Vinci” is not Leonardo’s last name. It means, literally, “from Vinci.” Shouldn’t someone in this movie know that? And there are no monks in Opus Dei, a lay Catholic movement. But it’s just a movie, so who cares, right? Okay, so given that, how does a wheezing old curator, with a bullet in his stomach, muster the energy to drag himself around the Louvre writing anagramatic phrases like, “How dark the con of man,” next to paintings, disrobe, inscribe a circle on the floor, draw symbols on himself, write a cryptic message next to the circle (which includes a scrambled Fibonacci sequence), and then arrange his dying, bleeding carcass on the floor after the manner of Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man? I don’t know about you, but I’d feel a little silly exhaling my dying breath that way.
If the movie is anything like the book (and I’ve heard it’s a faithful adaptation), then I am truly worried about the state of literacy in the world. What happened to the days when Dickens was hugely popular? Or Shakespeare could pack’em in at the Globe? I enjoy a good beach read, like anybody. But there is suspend-your-disbelief fun and then there is brain-frying stupidity. There are moments in this movie that border on self-parody. It’s certainly convenient, for example, that pigeons are so willing to help our hapless heroes by dive-bombing a gun-wielding Bad Guy. Or that Silas can break two bullies’ necks in a bat of an eye, but gets bested by an old man with not one, but two canes. And this is to say nothing of all the historical mumbo-jumbo. If anyone you know has had their faith shaken by the experience of reading or watching The Da Vinci Code, then I suggest you recommend a religion more appropriate to their gullibility level: Scientology, perhaps. Simply put, one of the goofiest stories ever told cannot debunk The Greatest Story Ever Told.
In response to my objections, someone might advise me to lighten up. It’s just a movie. Well, yeah, you’re absolutely right. The problem is that a movie this silly should lighten up. There’s a difference between Indiana Jones taking his search for the Ark of the Covenant seriously, and Steven Spielberg taking it seriously. Howard seems to think he’s making one of his cloyingly self-important Oscar-bait films. DVC has virtually no sense-of-humor, at least apart from the laughs it generates unintentionally. I mentally checked out of the movie when Langdon intones, with a straight face, “I have to get to a library. Fast.” That would have been an amusing action sequence: Langdon furiously flipping pages while the furrow in his brow deepens.
So what was all the fuss about? Yes, it does piss me off that DVC reduces Christianity to the same conspiracy-theory twaddle as “Did aliens build the pyramids?” I would be much more offended, however, if the movie had been good. One of the film’s last-minute attempts to appease Christians comes when Langdon, after saying that Christ was not the Son of God, thoughtfully adds, “But maybe human is divine.” The Da Vinci Code’s decidedly earthbound mediocrity blows holes in that theory.[This review was originally published in 2006 on Godspy.com]