You can almost imagine a telegram, marked "His Holiness' Eyes Only," arriving in Rome, its cryptic message decipherable only by those familiar with Hollywood's business practices: "NO NEED TO WORRY STOP MOVIE SUCKS STOP WILL OPEN BIG STOP THEN DROP OFF 50%-60% STOP MAYBE MORE STOP HAS NO LEGS STOP HANKS HAIR NOT REALLY A PROBLEM STOP
Condemned sight unseen by the Vatican, The Da Vinci Code finally arrives in movie theaters, spreading the Gospel of Mary as unearthed by Dan Brown, the Scooby-Doo of Catholic history. Brown, who could start his own religion with the converts his cosmic-mystery novel has found around the world, pulled off a hoax that makes the Hitler Diaries look like the Dead Sea Scrolls. It's not that people believed every word of Brown's conspiracy theory Ã?' that the Catholic Church has for centuries been covering up Jesus' marriage to Mary Magdalene, his anointed successor, thereby subverting the sacred feminine in favor of the sacred masculine. But by combining church history and art history with anagrams and pentagrams, Brown inspired just enough doubt to leave millions upon millions of believers and nonbelievers reaching for his theological X-File. The way and the truth are out there.
But not in here, alas, "here" being a cinematic chapel crammed with the faithful Ã?' lights low, spirits high, Holy Grails tucked into cup-holders as Ron Howard's movie version unspools before our eyes. Howard told Newsweek he wanted to reproduce the experience of reading the book. Instead, he's reproduced the experience of writing the book Ã?' false starts, muddled middles, dead ends. For all his infelicities, Brown knows how to propel a story forward. (Pose and solve a mystery, then pose and solve another one.) Meanwhile, our imaginations fill in the blanks. But Howard and scriptwriter Akiva Goldsman, taking the book basically one page at a time, show little imagination of their own. They've illustrated it, often beautifully. (If your travel budget's a little low these days, here's Paris and London for less than $10.) But they haven't wrestled with it, revised it. It's the King James Version, a little moldy.
Tom Hanks, looking around for something to sink his teeth into, is Robert Langdon, the Indiana Jones of Competitive Semiotics. Only instead of the Ark of the Covenant, he's after the Holy Grail, a quest made more urgent after he's declared a suspect in the murder of a curator at the Louvre. (The body, surrounded with numbers and letters just waiting to be decoded, is laid out like Leonardo Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man.) Along for the ride (or is she driving?): Audrey Tautou's Sophie Neveu, a police cryptographer with a personal stake in the outcome. The curator was her estranged grandfather. And her great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather was... anyway, she's along for the ride, and a bumpy ride it is, what with a crazed albino monk (Paul Bettany, who cracks a mean whip) hot on their trails. Can these two solve the riddles, unravel the mysteries and bring forth the greatest story never told?
Is the pope Catholic? Then again, do we care? Brown, whose dog-eared copy of The Name of the Rose will bring top dollar on eBay come the Apocalypse, somehow managed to get us excited about such arcane matters as the Priory of Sion, the Knights Templar and the Council of Nicea. Howard puts us back to sleep. He's either bored with the material or desperately afraid of overexciting the rest of us. But couldn't he at least have gotten a decent spook going, Ã? la The Exorcist or The Omen? Would that have brought down the wrath of God? Alternatively, couldn't he have had some fun? Of the entire cast, only Ian McKellen, as a wealthy, eccentric scholar with a jones for Mary Magdalene, seems to realize that The Da Vinci Code is basically Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets for adults. This movie needed a De Palma, a Tarantino, a Stone, a cinematic blasphemer. Instead, Hollywood sent a choirboy.