Da Vinci Code: Ron Howard’s Adapation of Dan Brown Best Seller, Starring Tom Hanks Sporting Bizarre Hairstyle

Cannes Film Fest 2006–Hollywood’s most eagerly-awaited event of the year, “The Da Vinci Code,” Ron Howard’s adaptation of Dan Brown’s best-seller, is a vastly disappointing movie that’s bound to frustrate those who have read the book as well as those who have not but expect to see an entertainingly or provocative picture.

Part conspiracy thriller, part religious treatise, part psychological melodrama, but unsatisfying on any level, “Da Vinci Code” will suffer from the hype that has surrounded the controversial book and the movie’s production over that past two years. It’s hard to think of a recent Hollywood picture that manifests such a wide gap between the level of expectation and level of execution.

Serving as the opening night of the 2006 Cannes Film Festival undoubtedly heightens the international profile of the picture, which has been the subject of protests by various Christian groups around the world. When the film unspools day-and-date comes May 19, Columbia will have to overcome unfavorable reviews after the first, disastrous press screenings in Cannes.

Since author Brown is one of the film’s executive producers, it’s valid to assume that he had approved of Akiva Goldsman’s screenplay, which inadvertently brings to the surface all the weaknesses of the book (not great but a quick, enjoyable read–a guilty pleasure), without benefiting from its strength.

In the hands of the team that has given us the 2001 Oscar winner “A Beautiful Mind,” also a flawed screen adaptation, “Da Vinci Code” comes across as a flat, rambling, and ponderous picture that, despite built-in narrative hooks and guilty pleasures, lacks dramatic focus and engaging characters.

Though using the format of a thriller and dealing with religious conspiracy about a possible union of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene and their offspring, “Da Vinci Code” is not involving on any level. Viewers who have not read the book might find the storyline confusing and the illustrated speeches about religious history and symbolism plodding, and often downright boring.

Faithful to the book, the film’s beginning is quite intriguing. In the first scene, set in the Louvre Museum, we witness a nasty confrontation between a curator fighting for his life and an albino monk named Silas (Paul Bettany). The curator’s bloody death leaves behind a mysterious trail of symbols and clues. The scene is intercut with Harvard symbology professor Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks in one of his most wooden performances) giving a lecture in Paris, in which he demonstrates the relativism of religious symbols.

Langdon, who was supposed to meet with the curator earlier that evening, is rushed to the Louvre to meet police officer Bezu Fache (Jean Reno). Also arriving on the scene is Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou), a police cryptologist who claims to be the curator’s granddaughter. Initially, tension prevails between Langdon and Sophie, who are driven into the case by different motivations.

However, it soon becomes clear that the expert Langdon is implicated in a major conspiracy and that his own survival is at stake. Aided by Sophie, Langdon embarks on a journey that unveils a series of stunning secrets hidden in the works of Leonardo Da Vinci, leading to a covert society dedicated to hoarding an ancient secret that has remained hidden for 2000 years.

Goldsman’s attempt to give the story a Hitchcockian touch is semi-successful. Hanks plays Langdon as a “Hitchcockian wrong man,” an “Everyman” who’s not used to being exposed to violence and is not used to being threatened himself. An innocent academic expert, who’s used to be solving all problems with his mind, without resorting to any physicality, Langdon is suddenly thrown into a dangerous situation that calls for a different set of skills.

It takes almost an hour before Ian McKellen’s Sir Leigh Teabing, the film’s most colorful character is introduced. As the sphinx of the story, Teabing is full of mysteries and serves as the narrative engine, since much of what happens is due to him. For a while, watching the trio of an American, French, and British joining forces in unraveling the mystery, is amusing. (The subtextual meanings of characters, that represent divergent national cultures and personalities, are not lost on the filmmakers or the actors).

If the last reel is more compelling than the previous ones, it’s due to the fact that the focus shifts from the more obscure religious conspiracy to Sophie’s family origins. Both Goldsman and Howard seem more comfortable with psychological melodrama and family secrets than with the notion of the sacred feminine (central in the book), or the more intellectual issues at the intersection of religion and politics.

Gradually, “Da Vinci Code” turns into the story of Sophie’s identity crisis and her search for roots. A sad, cynical girl, who lost her parents in an accident and was raised by a mysterious man, who may or may not be her biological grandfather, Sophie needs to restore her belief in humanity, a task assigned to Langdon, who’s perfectly suitable for the role due to his own peculiar past.

The evolution of warmth and friendship between Langdon and Sophie comes across vividly in the last chapters, and, for better or for worse, “Da Vinci Code” ends on a more typically conventional and soothingly Hollywood way than the novel.

In fact, throughout the text, we witness the clash between high-brow and middle-brow sensibility, the former manifest in decoding Da Vinci’s famous paintings (“Mona Lisa,” “The Last Supper”), and the latter in the relationships among the characters, which have been simplified in the transfer from page to screen.

Unfortunately, just when you began to take Ron Howard more seriously as a filmmaker, as a result of “A Beautiful Mind,” “The Missing,” and “Cinderella Man,” comes a movie like “Da Vinci Code,” which represents a step down; it’s one of his weakest directorial efforts. Not helped much by Goldsman’s script, Howard seems lost in the maze, and, despite his professed admiration of the Hollywood conspiracy genre, he is not particularly adept at making a thriller.

Howard’s direction falls victim to a repetitive pattern that gets increasingly tedious. Following more or less a similar structure, every sequence begins with dialogue, in which a character makes a revelation about his/her past, which is then illustrated through brief flashbacks. This is followed by a more “serious” (read verbose) discussion of an icon, which is then also illustrated graphically.

Technically, “Da Vinci Code” is uneven: the editing is abrupt, and some scenes are messy and incoherent. In the first reel, Langdon and Sophie’s escape from the Louvre is preposterous, defying logic or credibility even by standards of Hollywood actioners. In general, the three or four chase scenes in the movie are poorly staged, shot, and edited.

The high-profile international cast, which also includes Alfred Molina and Jurgen Prochnow, must have been exciting on paper. But it turns out to be a problem, too, due to the performers’ divergent interpretations of their roles and divergent acting styles.

Trying to hold the entire picture together on his broad shoulders, Hanks plays Langdon as a nave American abroad, a thinking man’s hero who’ on a relentless quest to unravel a mystery. In the book, Langdon is driven by curiosity and is fascinated by details, but he also shows a dry sense of humor, which is missing from Hanks’ interpretation (probably a function of the writing). Stuck with a role that’s built on exposition and explanation, Hanks renders one of his least convincing performances (you may have already heard about his weird long hair).

In contrast, McKellen plays Teabing with a glint in his eye and a touch of sarcasm in his voice. McKellen is such a brilliant actor that he can effortlessly switch from offering tea and biscuits to deconstructing history’s biggest puzzles and art works in the most cerebral way, all within the same scene.

The movie’s most one-dimensional, least sympathetic character is Silas, the troubled Albino monk, abused and manipulated by various bishops. In the book, Silas is a tragic character in desperate need of a father figure, after killing his own (because he had called him a ghost) for which he was sent to jail. Bettany, a usually reliable thespian, tries to humanize the character, but in looks and conduct, he comes across as a psychotic villain, and most of his scenes seem to belong to another movie–more of the horror genre.

The combined result of uneven writing and acting is to highlight even more Howard’s problem with establishing the right mood for each scene and for the picture as a whole. At times, within a matter of seconds, the tone changes so radically that the film goes from British comedy of manners to a routine Hollywood thriller-actioner to a heavy-duty discourse about art history.

Dan Brown took a log of long-held conspiracies and proficiently weaved them into a superficially engrossing story. What made the book a page-turner is not its style but thematic combination of verifiable history, conspiracy theories, and suppositions. Unfortunately, one of the major flaws of “Da Vinci Code” the movie is its inability to integrate Brown’s observations about the symbolic meanings of names, objects, and places into an exciting narrative, without coming across as dry lectures or boringly verbose illustrated dissertations.

In the hands of Goldsman and Howard, what was provocative, thoughtful, and thrilling in the book becomes simplistic, confusing, and plodding in the movie.