Wednesday, May 24, 2006


When hearing that someone has read the international bestseller The DaVinci Code, my first reaction is usually, "How interesting. What airport were you in?"

For the residents of Wil-Mont Manor, the answer turned out to be Reagan National. Clair had assiduously resisted the siren call of the popular thriller, despite her eagerness to know what all the fuss was about. However, once the publisher had determined they'd wrung all the cash they could out of hardback sales, the paperback edition came out, and my wife no longer had any excuse. And of course, once she had read it, I was going to have to read it as well, for the sake of coherent conversation. Fortunately, I knew it would be a quick read, and it seemed best to get it in my brain before I was exposed to the screenplay penned by Grand Imperial Hack Akiva Goldsman. So I bumped it to the top of the list.

There's not much point in critiquing The DaVinci Code. Is it well-written? Lord, no. Brown provides only the most cursory characterization, making his hero fearless one moment and petrified the next. I can't tell you how irritating it got to be, watching Robert Langdon go from knowing everything in the universe to being utterly baffled in a split-second. Emotions are matters of convenience for Brown.

In fact, almost every plot machination is doled out only when it suits the author. More than any book I can remember reading, you can see the scaffolding in The DaVinci Code. Characters are introduced either to be distractions or to serve as plot devices that never came to fruition. Brown seems to be re-enacting The Great Escape, digging multiple tunnels in hopes that one of them will eventually lead out. This is where a second draft really would have come in handy.

And yet, he really has stumbled upon a blockbuster of a plot. A massive coverup to hide the true nature of Jesus Christ and the corrupt power of the church built to worship him...that's incredible stuff.

Much has been made in the media about the true nature of the history upon which The Davinci Code is based. The short version: it's rooted in truth, but mostly bunk. Just like JFK. To which I have to say, "Well, duh." Anyone who reads this book thinking they're getting the gospel truth (please forgive the pun) is a pretty simple-minded individual. It's a story, and for all his shortcomings as a writer, Dan Brown is a gifted puzzlemaker. Like the demented wit who scoured album covers and translated bizarre backwards messages to concoct the Paul McCartney-is-dead theory, Brown is taking available information and exploiting the world's general ignorance about the founding and propagation of Christianity, and he's using it as the backdrop for his formula potboiler. And dammit, it works. (Well, everything except the part about Walt Disney. That was just stupid.) I was certainly eager to see what would happen next, even as I was openly scorning his hackneyed dialogue. I plowed through The DaVinci Code in less than a week; in part because it's not really challenging reading, but also because I was genuinely interested in Brown's fascinating, if poorly-told, tale.

To sum up: it's a story. It's clearly such. So I'm not sure I understand all the ruckus about using the Vatican as the all-powerful keeper of secrets, instead of the Pentagon or the Kremlin or the usual monolithic villains. And I suppose that demonstrates what a godless heathen I truly am.

Which brings us to the movie adaptation, an enterprise that has the initial benefit of not being written by Dan Brown. I actually had high hopes for the film, because I figured it could streamline a lot of the excess, improve the dialogue, and provide visual information that was hard to decipher on the page. To a certain extent, the film succeeds in each of these areas. However, it's not enough. The DaVinci Code The Movie is tied too inseparably to The Book. Like the first Harry Potter movie, the filmmakers are trying to hard to re-create the book, and are unavoidably weighted down.

The blame for this has to lie with screenwriter Goldsman and director Ron Howard. The best moments in the film come in the form of explanations of all the arcane history and fun with anagrams that are essential to the central plot. When Langdon -- an uncomfortably reserved Tom Hanks -- is deciphering a code, we get to see his mind working in the form of letters jumping out of a word, or planets orbiting in his imagination. It's a neat technique, quite apropos to the setting, and if you ignore the fact that Howard and Goldsman are cribbing from their own work in A Beautiful Mind, then it's inventive, too.

The best scene in the film is the lecture given by Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen, in his part as the only person in the story with personality) to explain the clues left by DaVinci in The Last Supper to reveal the true nature of the Holy Grail. It's combines clever visuals with a rather concise and effective verbal summary. Just one problem: it stops the film cold. Remember, while you're sitting here learning about chalices and blades, the clock is ticking. Howard and Goldsman have found a way to convey the information. They just haven't figured out how to make it move.

A lot of talent shuffles through this movie without getting to do very much. Audrey Tautou has a beautiful smile, but she doesn't get much use out of it, as she spends most of her time trying to figure out what's going on. Paul Bettany is driven, and little else. Alfred Molina has what amounts to a walk-on as a top church figure whose actual goals are never quite clear. And most tragic is Jean Reno, who doesn't get to be anything but gruff. Reno is good enough that he gets one of the film's few solid laughs out of his intensity, but he remains without dimension. Supposedly, Dan Brown had Reno in mind when he wrote the character, which begs the question: why?

I'm a big believer in suspending disbelief. Heck, I liked Independence Day when it came out, which is the gold standard for suspending disbelief. And The DaVinci Code, like the book upon which it is based, is an effective piece of simple entertainment. I think it could have aspired to more, given the fascinating subject at its core. But it doesn't. It acts big, but is really very small.

A comparison comes to mind, and it's a weird one. Of all the bizarre things for me to think of, I think The DaVinci Code compares unfavorably with the cinemataic classic Dracula 2000. No, stick with me for a second. It's not a good movie, but after you get through all the talk of Van Helsing surviving for hundreds of years and the unending tease of sex and harping on the decadence of New Orleans, you get to the one real flash of brilliance: Dracula is actually Judas Iscariot. Like Dan Brown, screenwriters Joel Soisson & Patrick Lussier have taken the existing data (silver, crosses, stakes, damnation) and plugged it the vampire mythology, and damn if it doesn't all start to make sense. It's hogwash, but it's the very same sense of cleverness and discovery -- the reinvention of religious dogma in pursuit of popular entertainment -- that Dan Brown exploited to make people buy his book in droves.

So yes, what I'm saying is that Ron Howard needs to make more movies like Dracula 2000. And I'll say it again.