As I slogged through the vast wastes of expository dialogue that comprise Dan Brown’s best seller The Da Vinci Code, one of the few compliments I could honestly pay the book was that it was eminently filmable. Its dense, labyrinthine story line is propelled not by language, but by images: a naked corpse splayed on the floor of the Louvre; a car chase around Paris in a minuscule SmartCar; a giant, self-flagellating albino monk. So movie-ready is The Da Vinci Code that Random House has even put out an illustrated edition of the novel, featuring photos of the works of art and architecture that propel the thriller’s plot. I found reading The Da Vinci Code something of a trial—to paraphrase Mark Twain: Once you put it down, you can’t pick it up—but at least, I told myself, it’ll make a swell movie.
So much for that theory. Ron Howard, a maker of glossy, populist entertainments (Splash, Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind) interspersed with the odd pointless clunker (How the Grinch Stole Christmas), has squandered an opportunity to treat us to a big, dumb summer movie that could have combined the occult frisson of The Exorcist with the paranoid energy of All the President’s Men. Given the silliness of the source material, The Da Vinci Code stood little chance of being a great film, but it could easily have been a fun one. Instead, Howard takes a strangely respectful approach to the overheated mysticism of the novel, turning the film into that most boring of genres: the pious blockbuster.
For the 12 people in the country who haven’t already read it, I’ll summarize the plot: Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), a professor of religious symbology at Harvard, is summoned to examine the body of a French curator, Jacques Saunière (Jean-Pierre Marielle), who’s been found naked and dead in the Louvre, a five-sided star drawn on his chest in blood. With the arrival on the scene of a foxy French cryptographer named Sophie (Audrey Tautou), Langdon is soon caught up in a web of utterly incomprehensible international intrigue. Chased by a cranky French cop (Jean Reno), Langdon and Sophie take refuge in the home of Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen), an eccentric and mysteriously wealthy scholar of all things occult. When the aforementioned albino monk (an unrecognizable Paul Bettany) shows up with a gun, it’s time to hop Sir Leigh’s private jet to England, yammering all the while about the Knights Templar, the Holy Grail, and the placement of the figures in Da Vinci’s Last Supper.
What does it all mean? Without risking any spoilers, I can tell you this much: An underground gnostic sect has spent the last 2,000 years guarding an unspeakable secret, a secret with the power to shake civilization in its very boots. And that secret, against all reason, involves the messiah and Audrey Tautou.
To my mind, the most ineffable gnostic secret of all is how such hooey has managed to capture the imagination of tens of millions of people all around the world. My best guess is that the book’s success has to do with its timing: Beset by faceless enemies and engaged in endlesswars, perhaps we need the comforting certainty of the occult. The message at the heart of this story’sparanoid labyrinth is, ostensibly, an anti-clerical one: Jesus is no god but only a man, and the Catholic Church is little more than a transhistorical Cosa Nostra dedicated to covering up that fact. But despite its purported iconoclasm, The Da Vinci Code is at heart deeply religious, and monotheistic at that: It wants us to believe that there is one secret truth that can change history, that that truth is knowable, and that only through Tom Hanks can we know it. Our salvation depends on Forrest Gump.
It’s too bad, then, that just as he did in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Ron Howard shoots himself in the foot by muting the charm of his own leading man. What director in his right mind would hire Jim Carrey only to immobilize his notoriously flexible face under 10 pounds of foam rubber? The same one who would dissuade Tom Hanks from doing That Thing He Does: the wry self-effacement shtick that has become his trademark. Hanks’ Langdon has no quirks, no context, no history: He’s a neutral container for information, a Grail-hunting bore. Shouldn’t the meeting of a Harvard symbologist and a decipherer of codes for the Paris police be a nerd orgy, with the two brainiacs bonding over their shared love for anagrams? Instead, Hanks and Tautou mope sexlessly in dusty medieval churches, recalling their traumatic pasts in grainy flashbacks (a car accident for her, a fall down a well for him). The knowledge they seek may be ineffable, but these characters’ back stories are as effable as they come.
As Rosemary’s Baby proved, deciphering anagrams from the beyond is not inherently uncinematic, and there’s no reason a goofy pulp novel can’t be turned into a scary, sexy film. The Da Vinci Code is neither—unless, of course, every line of dialogue in the film is an anagram for another, better one.