Da invincible 'Code' falters on the big screen

Controversies aside, just how good a movie is "The Da Vinci Code"? I realize that for many devout Christians and others - albinos reportedly are none too pleased - asking this question is a bit like the old joke: "Aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?"

But it is worth bearing in mind that "The Da Vinci Code" is based on a work of fiction and that the movie is, in the end, a movie. Trying to extract a theology lesson from this film makes about as much sense as watching Oliver Stone's "JFK" to learn the truth about the Kennedy assassination. Unlike Stone's movie, "The Da Vinci Code" is so transparently pitched as pulp entertainment that, in the end, it's about as subversive as "Starsky and Hutch."

If you are one of the 40 million people who has read Dan Brown's mega-bestseller, or even read about it in the approximately 40 million articles that have recently come out about it, you know that the plot centers on the reputed mortality of Jesus and the continuance of his bloodline. Since you may not be one of those 40 million, I'll keep any further divulgences to a minimum, except to say that if you haven't read the book, you're in for a lot of head-scratching.

Brown's 489-page tome reads like a bloated movie treatment and the overly long movie, directed by Ron Howard and written by Akiva Goldsman, hews fairly closely to the book. Tom Hanks plays professor Robert Langdon, famed Harvard symbologist, who is drawn into a criminal investigation while in Paris to promote his new book. A curator at the Louvre has been murdered and Robert finds himself the prime suspect. Joining him on the run is the curator's estranged granddaughter, Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou), a police cryptologist.

Together, without so much as a hearty hand clasp, they scamper across a fair amount of French and English acreage in search of exoneration and the secret hiding place of the Holy Grail. In its barest outline, the movie has a Hitchcockian premise: An innocent man is mistakenly fingered for a crime he didn't commit. The pseudo-religious overlay is essentially window dressing, a way of being fashionably scandalous.

The filmmakers don't waste much time getting down to business. Not 20 minutes into the movie, we're treated to the sight of the albino monk assassin Silas (Paul Bettany) mortifying his flesh in bloody close-up. Silas is supposed to be terrifyingly wraithlike, but the role is closer to camp or Kabuki. With the glorious exception of Ian McKellen, who plays the Grail expert Sir Leigh Teabing with cranky panache, the rest of the cast is dull. That includes Jean Reno as a French police captain and Alfred Molina as a bishop in the Catholic sect Opus Dei.

Hanks never cracks a smile, as if to do so would expose the shallowness of the material. In what is perhaps a sop to the book's critics, Robert has been made more disputatious and spiritually inclined. Tautou, who is given little to do but look pretty, is colorless.

In the book, both Sophie and Robert are constantly exercising their wits in order to solve a series of cryptographic puzzles. In the movie, the puzzle-solving is kept to a minimum. What this means is that the film lacks the deductive appeal of the book - the way it compelled you to match wits with the protagonists.

Instead, what might have been a cerebral treasure hunt bogs down in a miasma of nonstop exposition. To fill in the commentary we are subjected to repeated flashbacks of the Biblical past that look as if they were culled from bleached out black-and-white snippets from The History Channel or early Cecil B. DeMille. You can tell that Howard is more comfortable with action sequences because every time there's a shootout the film gets an instant adrenaline boost.

I suppose there was never any doubt that Dan Brown's book would be snapped up by Hollywood but not all bestsellers are cut out to be movies. Howard's film isn't terrible, but if the book had never existed I'm not sure people would be knocking down the barricades to see this movie. They probably won't be knocking them down anyway. Grade: C+

Rated PG-13 for disturbing images, violence, some nudity, thematic material, brief drug references, and sexual content.

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