Monday, May 22, 2006

THE DA VINCI CODE

If I had to nail down exactly what I thought about The Da Vinci Code, it’d probably be that I just felt it was wasted potential. You’re dealing with a massive story, probably one of the biggest you could tell while still giving it a real world setting (despite its massive factual errors, granted), with some of the biggest stars and best actors not just in the United States, but also abroad, and this is the film that results.

I’ve never read the book, but the idea behind it is interesting and exactly the kind of high concept needed for a summer flick – Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and fathered children, a secret that a sect of the Catholic Church has been covering up for centuries. There’s a lot else going on in the flick, but that’s the meat. There’s a big problem with making this the central mystery of the film, and that’s not just a problem because so many people read the book. Or that everyone who didn’t heard it from someone who had. It’s that they put it in the damn trailer, so you spend the first two thirds of the film watching two people solve a mystery you already know the outcome of. And by the time a big secret is revealed about a main character in the story at the end of the film (I’m not going to spoil it for the two of you who don’t know what I mean), you had that one figured out just as easily.

And plot-wise, none of this would bother me if the film was half as entertaining or engaging as the trailer led me to believe. See, with thrillers, you really have to go for two things. First, you have to engage the audience, keep them guessing and make them feel like they’re solving the mystery right along with the main characters. Then, you have to make it fun. Not always fun like the ball pit at Discovery Zone is fun (God knows Se7en was damn horrifying, but there is a fun there like akin to what you get from a jigsaw puzzle). The Da Vinci Code has neither. It explains every step of it so explicitly that any joy of discovery there might have been is instantly sucked from it. The worst instance is a monologue that explains the afore-mentioned big revelation about a main character that goes on forever, saying one single idea time and time again.

Instead of making a tightly-woven, smart thriller, and I think you can mostly blame director Ron Howard for this (whose best work, Apollo 13 and Cinderella Man, is emotion-centric), the flick spends a lot of time trying to make its religious ideas seem important and its characters far deeper than they are. Any fun the mystery could have is wiped away with constant reminders that “no, kids, it’s about Jesus.” There are flashbacks and backstories thrown in for absolutely no reason to try to pass as characterization, but they largely (especially Robert Langdon’s fear of small spaces and Silas’ troubled youth) have absolutely nothing to do with the story and do nothing to add to the characters. Unfortunately, the actors largely can’t save it. Tom Hanks is an actor who, I think, does his best work in comedy, but when he hits his dramatic notes, he really hits them. This is not such an instance. His Robert Langdon is obviously smart (most of his dialogue is him explaining concepts to people who really should know them…but really, that’s most of the dialogue of the film altogether), but he’s horribly boring, which is the worst quality a main character can have. There are a couple fine comedic hits with Ian McKellen that make the character moderately interesting, but for the most part he’s just drab, and mostly just in place to have someone to solve mysteries for or with the audience.

Audrey Tautou is about as popular as French actresses get in the states, and while she’s never looked hotter onscreen than she does here, she’s never been less interesting (although I’m really just every other American and have only seen her in Amelie and A Very Long Engagement). Even Alfred Molina, a fantastic actor whether it’s in a cameo in Boogie Nights or the villain in Spider-Man, has almost nothing to do in the entire film and makes almost nothing of it. Paul Bettany’s Silas is creepy, but never once feels threatening. Only Ian McKellen manages to show that he developed a real, interesting, layered character, and I wish the film was about him because I might have enjoyed it much more.

What does the film do well? Conspiracy, murder, mystery, intrigue, though that is few and far between. The fun stuff. Had they just given into the ridiculousness of the plot and made it a full-on thriller, I would’ve been all for it. The thriller aspect is also overshadowed by an underlying epic story. And with a story like this, you really have to go for full-on epic or down-and-dirty thriller, and the film tries to strike a balance between the two. It might be possible, but The Da Vinci Code suggests otherwise. There are some fine moments in the film; like I said, even though nearly all of Ian McKellen’s work is there to tell Hanks the answer, he makes it damn compelling to watch. There’s a scene with Paul Bettany in a church that’s pretty cool, purely because Silas is so damn crazy (and watching him pray…that was wacky). But the problem here is the most interesting scenes are those involving supporting characters. And yeah, it’s not abnormal that the bad guys will be more interesting, but it doesn’t make it impossible to overcome. Look at Die Hard, the one that practically invented the suave European villain, but you still can’t wait for Bruce Willis to show up again.

So like I said, it largely feels like a waste. There’s a lot of talent here (Cinderella Man was one of my favorite movies of last year, and I love every member of the cast), but everyone seemed to treat it like a paid vacation to Europe. The filmmakers put so much effort into not offending anyone that they sucked any fun the concept could have had, resulting in a what equates cinematically to a dull leading man solving the morning word jumble. Worst of all, by the end of it he’s handed all the answers, as is the audience, creating a thriller without a single thrill to be found.

6 comments:

Misha said...

Scott, I think that may be a bit harsh.

I'm no film expert, but I did enjoy the movie. One thing that always makes me upset when watching films about books that I read and liked is how far from the book the director takes it. This, however, stuck to what the Dan Brown had written, and though it may have taken a bit of the mystery away, it was honest to the book.

Going along with that, I think that Tom Hanks did a very good job being Langdon, as the book constantly reminds the readers that he is a drab, rather uninteresting man, though amazingly intelligent.

Also, I thought that the film, regardless of the plot or anything else, was very pretty. There were some beautiful shots, I thought, and it was very aesthetically pleasing, I suppose you could say. I will agree that it did waste a lot of potential, though. The book was such a page turner, and the film did lack some of the edge that Brown had written.

All in all, I'm glad to have seen it, and I don't think it was a waste. Maybe I'm easily entertained (I am), and maybe I have a really long attention span, but I liked it, and I even plan on seeing it again!

Oh, and by the way, Silas was my favorite character (he was in the book, too) and I thought that the actor was ok. And I cried when he died (just like I did when I read the book). Even though I knew it was coming, I still kinda hoped that it wouldn't happen...does anyone else do that? Like when you watch a movie again or read a book a second time? Or is it just me?

Scott said...

End of the day, the reviews are always one man's opinion. If you enjoyed it, I'm glad, I hope every movie finds its audience, if only for how much work is put into them.

And if sticking to the book is what makes it work for you, all the better. For me, though, I would have been happy if they added something to the Langdon character to make him interesting, or at the very least identifiable. As he stood, he really had nothing to distinguish him as a person, which didn't give me a reason to care for anything that happened to him.

And yeah, it was beautifully shot, and I should have noted that in the review. I also really liked the special effects touches as Langdon would decode the various messages; it's the same trick Howard used as effectively in A BEAUTIFUL MIND.

But like I said, I'm glad the movie resonated with you, and I wish I could have enjoyed it as much, because I definitely saw the potential for it.

Ken said...

A. O. Scott's review in the New York Times was hilarious by the way, don't know if you saw it? Also, there's a lot to be said for solving the morning word jumble.

Misha said...

I saw the trick from A Beautiful Mind, too. I loved that movie!

Katie said...

Scott, I thought your review was on point...I always said that while I hated the book "The DaVinci Code" (another discussion for another time if you want to know why I hated it), that I would see the movie version because I felt like the book was basically written to be a movie, and I liked the story itself. Unfortunately, I agree that the movie could have been a lot better, especially with the cast that Ron Howard got. I didn't see why the Catholic Church is upset about the film, though, because I didn't think the film really attacked the church much at all, just used it to frame their story. Also, there were multiple times I felt it could have or should have ended, and by the end, I really felt every last minute of how long that movie was. I would definitely recommend renting it, because it wasn't horrible, but at the same time, it just wasn't worth my 7 bucks.

p.s. i expect to hear how glorious X3 is, and even if it isn't glorious, will probably see it anyway. GOD i love the x men movies.

Ben said...

i disliked the movie, but probably just because i was stewing the whole time about the coat thing. curses!

i've been underwhelmed by the xmen movies, and expect more of the same. yet i go opening day...
scott, you are a siren