The Da Vinci Code

a film by Ron Howard

Pamphlets strewn the multiplex parking lot, blowing in the night wind like the scrambles of intolerance. Belligerent ads fill the pages of the USA Today, denouncing the film and calling for its boycott. Protest signs clog the front of cinemas, looking like worried little city skylines with nothing better to do with their day. Booming, chanting voices of dissent echo across darkened theatres as the opening credits appear on the screen. Ministerial rabble rousers scream obscenities at Hollywood, eschewing us not to see the film.

Perhaps this is all just poetic license on my behalf (well partly so at least), but then John Bunyan once gave we writers permission to perform said license, so I take pen in hand (or more precisely, put fingertips to keyboard) and style a flow of establishatory proclamations to get the ole ball rolling in the preferred direction. A ball that already has a big fat head start, having been begun by those factions - from the Pope on down to the pauper - who would have us all burning in eternal damnation for merely witnessing this movie. A well orchestrated, if not useless, attempt to stop the so-called presses from rolling. This feared backlash has been heating up for weeks now - possibly initiated by Imagine Entertainment's media department as much as by the "official" church - and it is not letting up with the release of the film this past Friday. I suppose it's not poetic license after all - there are those who would have this film banned if they could - but just plain old-fashioned censorship at work and play.

But then, I suppose I can see the church's point of view on all the hubbub and hullabaloo - at least to a point. Playing devil's advocate for a moment, this is a hot button subject at the moment - at least as far as the church is concerned - what with the possibility of Jesus not being who we all think he is - or was. I have not read Dan Brown's book, but I have read many of the books that he uses as source material (books on the Knights Templar, the Priory of Sion, the validity of church doctrine) and I must say that if any of it were found to be true - he said with tongue in cheek and wink in eye - it could mean certain doom for the Christian Church as we know it (sound of ominous music plays in background).

Back to reality now. Whether any of this is true is probably a question that will never be answered in even a remotely satisfactory manner - except possibly by those who take seriously all this who-what-where-and-when jazz in all its area 51-ish bravura. Though I must admit to a belief in some of the ideas put forth by these theories. Theories that have been floating about the halls of academia far longer than Dan Brown has been manipulating them. On some level - an agnostic one I suppose - it makes a whole lot more sense that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and had children together (something that would have been in perfect concordance with the social norms of the times) as opposed to the blind belief that Jesus was some sort of virginal half deity - the forsaken son of God.

I'm sure that last statement will most likely get pamphlets strewn about my own parking lot, but these questions - both the valid and the silly - will always be around. After all, questions concerning the validity of religion - any religion - have been poised, posed and pondered since dawn immemorial, and will go on as long as any sort of organized - or even unorganized - religion exists in this world (and don't even get me started on how if Jesus was born where they say Jesus was born, he would not be that blonde-haired, blue-eyed beauty that he is normally portrayed as in Sunday school books, church walls and Italian frescoes). But even the shaking of my own foundations - albeit not that shake-proof to begin with - after years of studying further than just what the Bible tells us, is nothing compared to Dan Brown, who goes at these possibilities and probabilities with an Oliver Stone conspiracy theory hoo hah glory kind of look in his eyes - and sells 40+ million copies to boot.

Of course we can go on all day and into the night about this subject (why don't we talk about sex and politics too while we're at it), but in the end, it still all comes down to one basic fact (and all you blinded-by-the-light protesters should take heed of this) - this is a film based on a work of fiction. Fiction based upon theories. Theories that - not unlike the Bible itself - have never been proved, nor, we must rationally consider, disproved either. That last statement, equating the fictionalization of The DaVinci Code with that of the Bible, too will render me succeptable to the likes of those holier-than-thou pamphlet wielders, but I must reiterate, this is merely a work of fiction - "Christian skulduggery" as Michael Atkinson puts it in The Village Voice - and should be nothing worthy of bringing down the very wrath of God upon us all.

But, I suppose, the question will remain - either as an unwanted sacrilege or a meta-post modern Mulder & Scully fascination - was Jesus the son of God or was he just a man. A man in love with a woman. A woman who history has tried to demonize or erase altogether. These are the kind of questions that Dan Brown (an in turn screenwriter Akiva Goldsman and Director Ron Howard) lays in front of us and dares us to debunk - if one can even debunk a thing that has never been seriously bunked in the first place. Perhaps Jesus was just a man after all and perhaps his divinity is nothing more than a symbol to guide humanity through its course. A symbol like the cross or the pentacle or the Star of David or the swastika (originally an ancient holy symbol of power and truth, bastardized and hideously transformed last century). Perhaps it is not the divine in Jesus that we need, but the symbol for that divinity. Perhaps, as Robert Langdon (the claustrophobic symbologist turned Indiana Jones without-the-charm adventurer - played by Tom Hanks in the film) puts forth near the end of the movie, to be human is to be divine - a belief held in high esteem throughout most of the Eastern world. Pehaps this is all a bit too much for a Summer Hollywood blockbuster kind of movie, and perhaps instead of criticizing the validity of church doctrine (I myself seem to have forgotten that this is all merely fiction), I should be criticizing the movie itself.

Unfortunately, as far as the film itself goes, the most interesting part of The DaVinci Code are the theories left behind it - leaving the movie as yet another in a dreadfully boring series of mediocrities perpetrated by that master of the mundane himself, Ron Howard. Although a technically sound filmmaker - he can frame a shot well enough to pass muster (of course after 45+ years in the business he better damn well be able to do at least that much) he has yet to sire a film that was able to arouse even the slightest emotional, intellectual or visceral response from this critic. Even my seemingly impassioned opening salvo of this review was more based upon the what-if scenarios and less on Howard's rather lackluster take on the whole kit 'n' kaboodle.

Of course with Howard at the helm, one should not be surprised at what one receives. As I sit here, I cannot bring to mind even a single memory from any Ron Howard film. Not a one. It's almost as if they don't even exist, which I suppose they don't, at least not in any artistic manner of speaking. Not in the way the films of Scorsese or Altman or even Tarantino exist today, with the veritable flooding of imagery spewing forth from even their worst films. Bland and ordinary (any studio-owned director could have made this film and it would have come out just as capably, or incapably as Howard's film did) The DaVinci Code, like all those past Ron Howard films such as the forgettably snorable Apollo 13 and the inexplicably well received A Beautiful Mind, is nothing more than a shrub pretending to be a great sequoia, or more apropos to the thematic outline of the film - a mere man, pretending to be a God.

Then again, there may be a few unexpected bright spots amidst all the conviviality. Mainly amongst the cast. Tom Hanks, who - like Howard - is capable but bland in his skills, and only stretches once in a blue moon - and never so far as to get his waistband all bent out of shape - is tolerable in the role of Langdon. The slapstick monkey-boy routine, fondly remembered from "Bosom Buddies" and Big, but wearing dangerously thin by the time of The Terminal, seems almost gone here. What was evident in the over-extended Philadelphia and the under-extended Road to Perdition and, to a somewhat nauseatingly nth factor in Castaway, nearly comes through here. He is a talented actor despite his lackluster roles. But when you have just silliness to work with (as Hanks himself put it in a recent interview, "all sorts of hooey and fun kind of scavenger-hunt-type nonsense") you can't help but come to a failure, no matter how much you have gained in style.

The other surprise is that of the cutsie-pie usuality that is Audrey "I am so fucking adorable I even twinkle when I shit" Tautou, that has gone away somewhere and has been replaced by a mature, engaging, beautiful actress who just may someday - if given the right role (and this cliche-addled character is not it, except for a possible stepping stone to a better world) - fit into something a little more the size of a Nicole Kidman.

But then the surprises die out, and you have Paul Bettany - although another surprise, but going in the other direction - normally a charismatic, challenging actor, even in the myriad of bad-choice roles he has found himself stuck in, here, as a self-flagellating albino monk, growls, snarls and upstages his way through the film as if he is one of Dr. Moreau's hideous creatures attempting Hamlet. His performance - so embarrassing, it may make his wife Jennifer Connelly forget all about her work in The Rocketeer - luckily is overshadowed enough by Ian McKellan (the one stand-out performance in the whole damn bunch) as a crazy old queen obsessed with the Holy Grail and Mary Magdalene, to be put aside as just another bad choice (although poor Jennifer may have to recall The Rocketeer again).

Full of strategically dropped flashbacks and overly analyzed asides (can't we just be allowed to figure things out on our own and not have to be pounded in the face and gut with so many repeated explanations of things that don't even need an explanation in the first place), The DaVinci Code, two and a half hours of the History Channel with car chases and big stars, plays way too much at being serious without ever wondering if it can be taken seriously in the first place, and in the end - when the end finally does arrive - we are left with mere hooey gussied up to look like the intellectual blockbuster of the Summer of 2006. I suppose though, in that end, I did end up, silly or not and in spite of the film (or perhaps in spite of myself), enjoying the brunt of the "hooey and fun kind of scavenger-hunt-type nonsense". [05/23/06]