Ron Howard’s adaptation of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is a marriage made in mediocrity, he a middlebrow moviemaker of vanilla prestige pictures and the novel a convoluted piece of historical fiction twaddle that utilizes diligently researched facts and myths to obscure its pervasive preposterousness. No surprise, then, that Howard’s movie version of the über-bestseller is a barely endurable enterprise, the kind of summer season blockbuster that wants to have its dead sea scrolls and show them off too, delivering popcorn thrills and intrigue while also affecting an air of somber erudition intended to bestow its tale of bibilical secrets and clerical cover-ups with some serious, scholarly heft.
The weightiest thing about the film, however, is its 149-minute running time, during which the director (along with A Beautiful Mind and Cinderella Man scribe Akiva Goldsman) manages the semi-miraculous feat of condensing his source material’s wealth of intricate puzzles and yet nonetheless making his race-around-Europe narrative feel appreciably more bloated than it did on the page. Leaden, inane, and unintentionally humorous, it’s a controversy-courting adventure that, in its turgid stab at highbrow murder mystery, is apt to not only anger pious Catholics who find its make-believe story blasphemous, but try the patience and insult the intelligence of anyone other than the book’s most devout fans.
Despite having been disparaged as little more than a screenplay template, Brown’s novel is, in fact, a largely static affair that alternates between un-cinematic conversations about feminine religious symbolism and tacked-on chase sequences, its structure easily broken down into a talk-run-talk formula. In order to enliven the exposition-heavy proceedings, Howard (working with cinematographer Salvatore Totino) randomly employs unnecessary cinematographic swoops, pans, and crane shots—aesthetic attempts to create a sense of dynamic momentum matched in incompetence only by CG-sculpted flashbacks to Christianity’s formative moments in ancient Rome and sequences in which the code-breaking process is visualized by certain portions of clues (be they letters or shapes) lighting up a là Wheel of Fortune.
Clumsy camerawork and computerization, however, can’t be blamed for Tom Hanks’s laughably long locks nor for his stilted performance as symbologist Robert Langdon, which primarily involves the star furrowing his brow, intently examining artwork or crazy contraptions, and letting loose with flabbergasted exclamations when faced with another unexpected turn of events. Originally envisioned as a modern-day Indiana Jones (Brown calls him “Harrison Ford in Harris tweed”), Langdon instead comes off as a blank academic action figure, interpreting anagrams and riddles about the Holy Grail with superhuman speed but nothing even resembling a personality. He’s a cipher-deciphering cipher.
As Langdon endeavors to uncover the truth behind a colleague’s slaying (and the monumental conspiracy he protected), he’s joined by pouting Parisian cryptologist Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou) and, later, by crippled Grail expert Sir Leigh Teabing (an animated Ian McKellen), Hanks sharing zero chemistry with the former and finding himself habitually upstaged by the latter. Hunted by both Captain Fache (Jean Reno), who believes Langdon is a killer, and albino monk Silas (Paul Bettany)—who, as a member of Catholicism’s acetic Opus Dei sect, has a taste for self-flagellation—the trio flees for their lives while engaging in debates about Jesus, the Church, and secret society The Priory of Scion, the limp historical revelations they discover neatly matched by Langdon and Neveu’s confrontations of childhood traumas.
Hooey on a grand scale, the director’s latest fiasco strives for provocation but scarcely manages to be competent, its suspense virtually non-existent and its bombshells landing with pitiful thuds. Emblematic of Howard and Goldsman’s dedication to verbalizing overt themes, Teabing muses, toward the conclusion, “Who is God, who is man?” It’s a question The Da Vinci Code is thoroughly incapable of answering, though hidden in the query seems to be an apt description of the film itself—for God, as any novice symbologist knows, is also an anagram for dog.