Stuffed with book learnin’, worshipful of scholarship, queasy about violent action, and motored by anagrams and Riddler-style brainteasers, the obligatory film incarnation of The Da Vinci Code is something of a locker-stuffed nerd in Blockbuster High School. Studiously faithful to the ubiquitous bestseller, Ron Howard’s film is uniquely clotted with history and mythology for a bankrolling summer movie, a form virtually defined by a gape-mouthed ignorance of both.
If only it were allowed to be merely a cheesy romp, an Indy Jones movie with more sophisticated stereotypes and far less humor. But apparently this is no mere pop novel-turned-high-hat megaplex product. Even satisfied readers of Dan Brown’s Christian skullduggery may be surprised by the gravitas with which this franchise is being regarded—in the week rolling up to its release, newspapers dissected the book’s high-flying theses yet again as if they were historical assertions in need of debunking. Advance reviews burst early like hand-jobbed teenagers, and incredulous BBC commentators broke the story of the film’s “ordinariness”—as if they thought it was destined to be a genuine revelation. Concerns about sectarian violence may keep the film from many Arab theaters, and cries of sacrilege have been renewed, as if by command of Brown’s publicity team. Da Vinci Code coffee table volumes, board games, spin-offs, retorts, T-shirts, and coffee mugs continue to clutter bookstores, while the Vatican called for a boycott sight unseen, lending Brown’s conspiracy theories cultural weight he couldn’t buy for a billion bucks.
The resulting irony is thick as a brick, as we’re faced with a populace, ordinarily disinterested in historical matters, who are suddenly paying far too much serious attention to the cryptology of the deep Christian past. Even star/coif victim Tom Hanks is cynically sensible about the hubbub—or is he brownnosing the devout?—when he told The Evening Standard that the film’s story “is filled with all sorts of hooey and fun kind of scavenger-hunt-type nonsense.” Brown might quibble, but Hanks is right—the Da Vinci Code movie is old-school skylarking, pulling monk-chant tropes out of The Omen and talking up theories of symbology, Jesus biography, and Crusades espionage that have loitered in fringe academia for decades. (Robert Graves’s The White Goddess danced over and disposed of this pagan vs. apostolic material in 1948.) For the first hour, at least, it’s the sort of movie in which the hero is told by a stranger, “You’re in grave danger.” It may’ve been the 80th or 90th time I’ve heard that line, and I succumbed to a pang of matinee joy. It didn’t last.
A plot synopsis would be redundant for many and scandalous for some; let’s leave it with Hanks’s semiotic historian being confronted by a Parisian cop (during a book signing!) to help uncode messages left beside a murdered body in the Louvre. From there, he careens (in a single day, mind you) through a nefarious plot involving Opus Dei, the Crusades, the significance of the Star of David, the secret legacy of Mary Magdalene, and a psychotic, self-flagellating albino monk (Paul Bettany) whose idea of being inconspicuous is to stalk the banks of the Seine in a cowl.
Jungians will be snoring by the second act, such are the elementary-grade explanations for religious signs and occult motifs. As a thriller, Howard’s movie is 2.5 hours of clue-finding, plus explanation, plus police pulling up outside. Hanks’s rather testy bookworm has absolutely no third dimension, but Audrey Tautou’s nurturing, code-experienced civilian has too much baggage—helpful flashbacks pop in at the drop of a gospel and often digitally occupy space with the contemporary characters. (A half-remembered glimpse of cabalistic sex ritual scans like an outtake from Eyes Wide Shut.) The juice that made Brown a magnate doesn’t begin to flow until Ian McKellen, as an eccentric academic on a Grail quest, shows up with his capable jowls packed with exposition. The book may’ve magnetized readers with explications of Christian lore that draws too much uninterrogated devotion as it is, but the movie ends up feeling like a long-winded History Channel special with movie stars and car chases.
Without the 40 million books already sold, this overpuzzled hogwash—which, it should be rationally said, is no less risible than the Christian dogma it disputes—might’ve commanded the presence of Scott Bakula and gone straight to video. Overshadowed by its own marketing hurricane and popular rage, Code struggles for significance as a movie experience and flies a weak flag as a provocation.