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Published: Friday, 5/19/2006

Movie review: The Da Vinci Code *

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The premise is a peach.

Everything you know about the very foundation of western civilization is a lie. What we know as Christianity is, in fact, "the greatest cover-up in human history." The real Catholic Church and the true background of Jesus Christ, violently and covertly suppressed for centuries, is "one of the most powerful secrets ever kept." But "real clues" were sprinkled throughout history - "real enough to kill for!"

What's the big deal?

When I read Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, not only did I not take it as much more than a beach read, not only did it not send me into fits of anti-Christian resentment or have me seriously questioning the teachings of the Catholic Church itself - it's pulp fiction, if there ever was

- I remember driving with a friend and reading lines from it out loud. My favorite, and I paraphrase: "The bloody albino dragged the historian across the floor" - or something or other.

Yet, oh the secretiveness.

The controversy.

The blasphemy.

The movie.

The three security guards Sony Pictures sent to the theater to ensure I didn't videotape it.

Which brings me to, this is it?

North By Northwest, this ain't.

Though it might have been.

Ron Howard's fascinatingly awful The Da Vinci Code, much like Dan Brown's mega-phenomenal best-selling thriller, is a mystery where the characters are secondary to the clues, the clues are meaningless (but we're told they're monumental), the codes would be fascinating if the letters and numbers meant anything (we're never handed a key or asked to understand), and the solutions pivot on covert meanings in art and religious history.

Which is all interpretation.

A good mystery is a mystery where the Ah ha! - that moment where the pieces click together and you realize up is actually down - has been teased, where the clues were there all along but we didn't see them in quite the right way. The Holy Grail, for instance. You think it's a cup, right? Nope, it's a person - great, now what? Having read the fun book, and now seen the grim movie, to the extent I understand how everything in The Da Vinci Code fits together, I don't care anymore.

That is, if I was meant to.

You see it in Tom Hanks' eyes.

Flaws in the book become nine stories tall in the movie. Literally. And a book this lightweight to begin with can't support the trapped-under-glass Great Works of Western Literature approach Howard grants it.

Die-hard fans will be happy to know that Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman are very reverential with the novel - to the extent the filmmakers forget one reason that people liked the book is because it was breezy, not solemn and self-important.

Brown may be a horrible writer but he's a brisk one and scenes that read in seconds on the page play in slow motion on the screen. I swear the novel takes less time to read than the movie does to watch; or at 2 1/2 hours, perhaps it just feels that way. And Goldsman and Howard cut out a few Brown twists, too.

But not the exposition.

Oh, the exposition.

The Da Vinci Code is so boring, Tom Hanks actually says at one point, "Get me to a library, fast!"

And yet it happens slowly.

As in the novel, the movie is a chase followed by a lecture, followed with a chase, then another lecture. Sometimes there's a lecture during a chase. Scenes grow so coated in lore and arcane mythology, no amount of professional polish and cameras soaring high over London can help.

But it does help that some of the lectures are fascinating, and better explained than in the book. It begins well, too, in the Louvre in Paris. (Lousy as the film is, it makes a handsome European triptych.)

As the book does, the movie starts with a Louvre curator with a dark secret running from an albino monk. Howard cuts between the curator's murder and a lecture (surprise) from renowned iconographer Robert Langdon (Hanks), who, improbably, is playing to a full house.

After being even more improbably charged with murder - he's got about 500 alibis - Langdon runs into a French cryptologist (Audrey Tautou), and you know what they say, or maybe Howard's passionless picture just implies: when an iconographer and a cryptologist partner up, the sparks rarely fly.

If there was a hint of romance in the book, between Hanks looking pasty and wooden and Tautou (from Amelie) puzzled and grim (also, mumbling everything), there's not a whiff of sex.

Who's got the time?

What with that albino monk (Paul Bettany), a loyal soldier of the strict Catholic sect Opus Dei (which is a real sect but strongly denies being sinister), running around killing clergy members to keep secrets, breaking up church floors, flogging himself, sniffing loudly, glaring wildly; we even get a glimpse of his childhood, which serves no clear purpose because he's essentially the strangest James Bond henchman ever.

It's not without fun.

Ian McKellen, as a Holy Grail scholar who understands all too well why Langdon is being chased, relishes every cornball revelation and line of dialogue. If the religious matter seemed to shout to the filmmakers (and Sony) all this needed to be taken very seriously, McKellen's jaunty performance is a lighthearted rebuke.

The Da Vinci Code could use a bit more recognition of how goofy it is, how its roots are not in Graham Greene but Mel Brooks. Or even Monty Python.

Or perhaps, Hitchcock.

Hanks and Tautou, like Cary Grant and his leading ladies, are thrown together and sent on adventures, and never allowed the pleasure of their charms or company. They are all business. Which is too bad, because here's a book that ends chapters with, "Then everything went black."

So, what went wrong?

That's no mystery. Brown wrote a wild slice of provocation and what moves the picture is not that creative risk (and it is a risk) but doing justice to it.

Howard plays it safe. Which might not sound like a surprise from so middle-of-the-road a filmmaker. But maybe he didn't feel he needed to do anything but genuflect. What people always say about the book, after all, is that "it reads like a movie." But what they mean is, it reads fast.

Anyway, here's what I propose. Let's put this behind us. All of it. The fun-bad book. The bad-bad movie. The tables of books in the bookstore devoted to decrypting and deconstructing and cracking The Da Vinci Code. The angry letters about how Dan Brown and Tom Hanks and his bad hair and the motion picture industry are going to hell in a tie-in Da Vinci Code handbasket. Let Dan Brown keep his gazillions. Sony, too. With one caveat: Give us, the victims, the last Da Vinci laugh.

Let's meet back in 10 years.

After we've all moved on.

Let's make Ron Howard's Da Vinci Code the new Rocky Horror; Rocky has grown long in the tooth, anyway. Periodically six or seven audience members dressed as French police will rush into the theater and bump into each other. There'll be men dressed in flowing mullet wigs.

Woman in business suits will speak English in French accents so no one can understand them. There'll be bloody albino monks and Mona Lisas. The audience will shout dialogue from the film back at the screen: "I don't understand," and "This makes no sense," and "I don't follow that."

It'll be, egads, fun.

Every five minutes or so, the film will stop (to symbolize the film's utter lack of forward motion), the lights in the theater will come up, and a solemn man with a cane will take the stage and go into long tortured explanations of Sir Isaac Newton, Fibonacci number games, Knights Templar, Crusades, Swiss bank accounts, how Swiss bank accounts are accessed, Swiss bank account keys, the "Last Supper," "the French FBI," Mary Magdalene, the Holy Grail, the Louvre, Opus Dei, Emperor Constantine, Western Civilization itself, and whether one's tea should be taken with either lemon or milk.

Heretical? Not even close.

Hysterical, yes.

Calling Monty Python.

Come in, Monty Python.



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