Thursday, May 14, 2009

Puzzling: The Da Vinci Code

[Because seeing Angels & Demons isn't on the list of things to do this weekend, The Cooler offers the following review, written upon the film’s release in the author’s pre-blog era.]

After more than two decades unveiling letters, Vanna White no longer holds the easiest job in showbiz. This year, at least, that title goes to the publicist for The Da Vinci Code, a film starring Tom Hanks, directed by Ron Howard and based on a Dan Brown book that – as of the movie’s May release – has spent more than three years (and counting) on The New York Times bestseller list. In hardback! Only toilet paper sells itself better.

Trouble is, a marketer’s dream can be a filmmaker’s curse. The Da Vinci Code is destined to ride its wave of consumer awareness to huge box office numbers, but in the meantime the film itself will almost certainly drown in unrealistic expectations. For a filmmaker, the only thing worse than no one wanting to see your movie, is everyone wanting to. Howard may be the guy yelling “action,” but this picture’s true director is Brown’s novel, which has inspired so many fans – some 40 million, at least – that altering the story would be tantamount to, oh, say, debating the Bible.

In this way, the success of the novel holds the film hostage. When the movie fails to impress, book fans will cite the differences between the two, ignoring that when most adaptations tank it’s because of all the ways they try to replicate books, not the ways they deviate. Film and print are different mediums, after all. But people forget this, often repeating, as if it’s canon, that films “never” live up to their textual inspirations. This is entirely untrue, of course, as adaptations of Nicholas Sparks books seem destined to prove. But the belief exists just the same.

And sometimes it’s true, as is the case with The Da Vinci Code. Or, so I think. Having not read the book, I’m just guessing, but the signs of literary superiority are there: In the film’s 149-minute running time, which while bloated with plot is anemic in excitement; in the utter unimpressiveness of Hanks, who seems to have been asked to do little more than occupy space; in the way The Da Vinci Code (meaning the movie) comes off like a poor man’s National Treasure, when two years ago National Treasure was accused of being a knock-off of The Da Vinci Code (meaning the book).

The film’s principal problem is pacing. The story is packed with so many twists that you can feel the breeze coming from the fast-turning pages of Brown’s novel, yet on screen the rapture is lost in translation. Moving ahead like a tourist more interested in getting passport stamps than in actually exploring other countries, the movie’s adventures are checked off hurriedly. Each action sequence is followed by a pause just long enough for some cursory character development and plot exposition, and then, whoosh, another trapdoor opens, and down the chute we go.

But to what? Well, for starters, to a rather absurd hero in the form of Hanks’ Robert Langdon. A professor of symbology at Harvard, Langdon begins our adventure as a brilliant stiff nervous to step on an elevator. He ends the story, somewhere less than 48 hours later in story time, as some kind of Indiana Jones. The key difference is that Indy lived for adventure. Langdon? In the course of one seemingly interminable night he goes from signing books, to seeing a former friend’s corpse, to being involved in three high-speed car chases while fleeing at least one person apparently out to kill him, and it hardly fazes him.

For a Hanks movie, the adrenaline seems misapplied. We’re meant to be drawn to Langdon because of his smarts, chiefly his unique ability to solve complex puzzles. Yet whereas the book probably romanced readers with Langdon’s mental heroics by providing a view into his thought process, in the movie we only just begin to understand each puzzle by the time Langdon has solved it, often benefiting from luck, other times using logic that doesn’t require an advanced degree in cryptology so much as solid Scrabble skills. Granted, Langdon is crazy-fast when code-cracking his way through the Louvre. But how suspenseful is it, really, when the one policeman who could nab our genius is a flunky too inept to join his fellow officers on a wild goose chase?

Even more perplexing than Langdon is the henchman out to get him, Paul Bettany’s Silas, a religious extremist on a murder mission to protect the darkest secrets of the Roman Catholic Church. Silas goes on his 9-milameter errands wearing a monk’s robes, but it’s unclear whether his outfit is a sign of religious devotion, an effort to conceal his self-inflicted wounds of penitence, or merely protection for his sensitive albino skin. Regardless, I’d bet a T-shirt and jeans would arouse less suspicion than this gun-toting Obi-Wan Kenobi get-up.

Actually, I think this gets to the heart of what’s wrong here. The Da Vinci Code isn’t an awful film, and the benefit of its frenzied format is that we never settle long enough to get entirely bored. But the story takes too much pride in its examination of the microscopic to have so many blunders in logic that are visible to the naked eye. The cast is outstanding, the premise is intriguing, but the loopholes are overwhelming.

Are we really to believe that the Louvre doesn’t have security cameras? And what happened to the bulletproof glass protecting the Mona Lisa? Was it removed when she suddenly doubled in size? Also, what good is it to have an army of secret protectors for the Holy Grail, if said army is willing to let the treasure repeatedly fall into enemy hands? And what’s the point of an elaborate code system to guard Christianity’s sins if the vault holding the evidence is left unlocked? And, finally, doesn’t it strike you that the one person who doesn’t know the “big secret” is the one who most needs to know?

The Da Vinci Code needn’t be airtight. It’s a fantasy, remember. It has dramatic license. But it also has the authority to go its own way, and there’s no sign that it does. Structurally, this film probably passes as a visual stand-in for the novel. But to succeed the way the book did, to thrill millions, what it needed to do was stand on its own.


Ed Howard said...

I really hated this movie, for a lot of the reasons that you cited here. But what really got to me was the sense that the filmmakers thought their audience was just so stupid that they had to spell out *everything* in the most artless way possible. I remember one of the "puzzles" that Hanks solves where, as he's figuring out the clues, the relevant part of the screen actually *lights up* to highlight what he's talking about. Howard doesn't have the cinematic talent to naturally get his audience looking where he wants them to look, so instead he basically uses a laser pointer like he's talking to a classroom full of ADD-afflicted high-schoolers. It's indicative of the pandering to the lowest common denominator that runs through the whole movie.

Daniel said...

Though the temptation was really quite low to give in, I consider my stubborn avoidance of both of these books and both of these movies to be one of my proudest achievements in recent years. So far I've done pretty well not judging those who have been suckered in by Brown/Howard/Oprah, but come on, people, do you really enjoy being spoonfed so blatantly?

Jason Bellamy said...

Ed: It didn't hit me enough for me to hate it. But I found it annoying, that's for sure. I seem to remember the "light up" part happening at least twice. In one case it was somewhat powerful -- moving the figures in the Last Supper portrait. But other times, yes, pandering to the lowest common denominator.

Daniel: I still haven't read any of the books. From the sounds of it, Dan Brown is Michael Crichton, but with less talent. In other words, he keeps you turning the pages, but less artfully. I can understand the allure of a fast summer read, but when movies use the same approach it almost always fails. There has to be some time for suspense to build.

Richard Bellamy said...

Jason - Your assessment of Dan Brown's books without having read them is actually right on. I've read both The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons and I especially found the former to be boring. It was almost like a book-version of a video game. You come to the solution of a puzzle, complete that level, and move onto the next level, and the next, and the next.

man with desire said...

Dan’s comment on awakening readers’ interest reveals that he still has his own strong motive to make his readers believe the claims and ideas he presents in the book. Dan also reveals to be a spiritual seeker for the rest of his life. It seems that his book The Da Vinci Code shows the guidelines along which Dan is proceeding spiritually. I am very much in doubt that a person whom one of the strongest motivations for life is a lifetime spiritual search, would write something in his book that is meaningless or insignificant to him. The fact is that a person interested in spiritual matters wants to share his spiritual findings and beliefs to others too. This is how I believe that also Dan Brown did when he wrote his book The Da Vinci Code.