Saturday, May 20, 2006

The DaVinci Code / **½ (PG-13)

Robert Langdon: Tom Hanks
Sophie Neveu: Audrey Tautou
Sir Leigh Teabing: Ian McKellen
Bishop Aringarosa: Alfred Molina
Silas: Paul Bettany
Bezu Fache: Jean Reno

Columbia Pictures presents a film directed by Ron Howard. Written by Akiva Goldsman. Based on the novel by Dan Brown. Running time: 148 min. Rated PG-13 (for disturbing images, violence, some nudity, thematic material, brief drug references and sexual content).

Has Hollywood forgotten how to fashion a good mystery? It seems they – you know those guys who run Hollywood – still know what one looks like, but the art of throwing a true surprise at an audience has gone the way of the dodo. Last week I complained that Ethan Hunt couldn’t figure out who all the bad guys were when it was obvious who had set him up in “Mission: Impossible III”, this week I lost track of all the mysteries I was able to figure out before the main characters in “The DaVinci Code” divined them.

Ron Howard’s new film, based on the best selling book by Dan Brown, has sparked a great deal of controversy over what is really just a fun entertainment. There are a lot of people in it acting badly about a plot that involves the church and secrets kept about Christ, but it is essentially just an Indiana Jones movie in the guise of an adult thinking man’s movie. Don’t think too much though, or you will get ahead of it all.

Tom Hanks (“The Terminal”) portrays Dr. Robert Langdon, an expert in historical symbols, who is implicated in the murder of the curator of the Louvre Museum in Paris, Jacques Sauniere. French actress Audrey Tautou (“Amelie”) is a police codes expert Sophie Neveu, who is more deeply connected to the case than she seems at first. She helps Langdon to escape from the French federal officer Captain Fache (Jean Reno, “The Pink Panther”) so he can help her decipher the messages left behind by Sauniere (Jean-Pierre Marielle, “A Summer Affair”) leading to his real murderers and the conspiracy they are trying keep covered up.

The way Langdon and Neveu are fairly freely able to investigate a series of clues left behind by Sauniere throughout the museum in his own blood before he died, while the police try to find them after their apparent escape is a good example of the improbability factor utilized for the convenience of the heroes for the plot of the story. I’ve been to the Louvre recently and if the curator was able to move around that gigantic museum the way he did in order to place his clues, he could have gotten himself some care before his death and possibly lived. Also Langdon and Neveu’s escape, both the false one they use to through the police off and their eventual escape, are highly dependent on the fact that a great deal of officers are going to leave their posts long enough for the two heroes to do their work and conveniently drive away.

Langdon and Neveu are certainly not like Indiana Jones in any way shape or form. This is not a movie driven my stunts and explosion and special effects, but they do end up becoming treasure hunters of sorts. They find their way to their goals by laying out their clues and thinking them through. Langdon offers a description of himself at one point as a “historical policeman,” but a policeman in the sense that he never looses his head. He approaches his problems with logic. While this type of character doesn’t break the plausibility lines by becoming some scholarly action hero, it is kind of a shame we only get to see Hanks thinking out problems. His acting talents are fairly under-utilized here.

Sir Ian McKellen (“X-Men” trilogy) does get a chance to add some flavor to the characters presented here as a friend of Langdon, who – again conveniently for our heroes – has a lot of money and helps them discover just what it is they are actually looking for and why certain parties might be interested in keeping it a secret. Paul Bettany (“Firewall”) also adds some twisted menace to the proceedings as a religious assassin.

Despite much of the convenience of the plot, the story really is intriguing and offers up some good popcorn thriller fare. A good deal of the movie works as long as you don’t try too hard to get ahead of the heroes. Unfortunately, however, Howard (“Cinderella Man”) seems to be a little too timid in allowing the audience to just soak it in. Throughout the film the director insists on dropping in short flashback sequences that are a little too revealing. It is as if he is afraid the plot is too complicated for the audience to follow, but besides clarifying the ideas proposed by the “controversial” conspiracy theories presented here, the flashbacks also offer clues into the plot’s mysteries. These clues are all too often obvious and steal away most of the surprises to come at the end of the film.

I suppose, since most of the world besides me has already read the book, the surprises have all been spoiled anyway, but there is something to be said for the time when Hollywood respected the intelligence of its audience enough not to spell everything out for them. Most of the fun to be had in a film such as this is not having any clue what-so-ever as to how it is all going to end up. Hollywood has gotten into the habit of spoon feeding its audiences by playing to the biggest ticket buying demographic of young men who mostly enjoy visual stimulus. It is a shame that even a director as gifted as Ron Howard is unable to resist that type of mentality in filmmaking, especially for a production that otherwise does a good job of keeping its thriller elements on a mature adult level.

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