The Roman Catholic Church can rest easy. Ron Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman struggle mightily to cram as much as possible of Dan Brown's labyrinthine thriller into a 2-hour, 28-minute running time, resulting in a movie both overstuffed and underwhelming. This film is not likely to topple Christianity as we know it, though it could do serious damage to Audrey Tautou's hopes of a Hollywood career.
Tautou plays Paris police cryptologist Sophie Neveu, whose grandfather, a curator at the Louvre, is murdered at the beginning of the film. As readers of Brown's spectacularly successful novel know, before he dies, the grandfather leaves behind a set of riddles and clues. He also selects the only two people in the world capable of unraveling them: Sophie, and Harvard "symbologist" Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks). Unfortunately for Langdon, the French cop in charge of the investigation, Bezu Fache (Jean Reno), is convinced he's the killer. And so the chase begins, Robert and Sophie trying to stay one step ahead of the law--and the murderous Opus Dei albino monk (Paul Bettany)--as they pursue a mystery that could upset the very foundations of Christianity. (Is there anyone reading who doesn't know all this already, or what the big revelation about Jesus and Mary Magdalene is? Out of deference for those unenlightened few, I will reveal no more.)
Brown's paragraphs alternate between pulpy cliffhangers and barely digested research, giving the reader a crash course in early Christian theology, pagan symbolism, religious-art history and the relationship between the Knights Templar and the papacy, with side essays on code breaking and cryptology. The question about the movie was, how could you fit all this exposition into a mile-a-minute thriller without bringing everything to a crashing, didactic halt?
The answer: awkwardly. One solution is the historical flashback. Periodical-ly, Howard speeds us off to crowded, computer-generated visions of ancient Rome, the Holy Land or Ye Olde England for whirlwind history lessons that whip by so speedily you can barely take in the information, though you do have time to notice how tacky they look. Then there are the desaturated-color flashbacks to traumatic moments in our characters' histories: little Robert falling down a well as a child, the car crash that kills Sophie's parents or the backstory of Silas, the albino hit man with a penchant for self-flagellation. Anyone who hasn't read the book will find the latter utterly confounding, as will anyone who has: this is cinematic shorthand taken to unintelligible extremes.
The movie gets a lift with the arrival of Sir Ian McKellen as the crippled English Holy Grail scholar Sir Leigh Teabing, who takes the fugitives under his wing at his spectacular French country chateau. His slide show ferreting out the secrets of da Vinci's "Last Supper" is one of the rare moments when the book's theories are enhanced cinematically: we can actually see that one of the 12 disciples does appear to be a woman. McKellen adds a mischievous grandiloquence that perks things up considerably. He, at least, seems to be having a grand old time.
"The Da Vinci Code" isn't a disaster on the level of "Bonfire of the Vanities." It has an atmospheric seductiveness that initially grabs you. But it's surprisingly unfun. Brown put all his ingenuity into his treasure-hunt riddles. Since the movie dispatches these quickly, we are left with what passes for "characters," and let's face it, Robert Langdon and Sophie Neveu are a pretty glum pair of sleuths. The movie is so anxious about covering as much of the novel as possible that it never gives the actors any breathing space. Even the resourceful, likable Hanks can do little with the Harvard prof, a character who leaves almost no aftertaste. Langdon's decoding powers seem superhuman (words in the riddles literally light up on screen as he unscrambles an anagram, not unlike the visions of John Nash in the film "A Beautiful Mind"). But who is this guy?
Sophie Neveu's contributions as a cryptologist have been diminished in the screen version. She's been dumbed down but not warmed up or fleshed out, and Tautou, whose accent is not always easy to decipher, looks ill at ease. Howard allows her none of the spark she demonstrated in "Amélie" or "Dirty Pretty Things." Hanks and Tautou don't even seem to be trying for chemistry. Indeed, Howard curiously shies away from the novel's hints of sexual attraction. Did he think that would cheapen this lofty theological treatise?
The bare bones of Brown's thriller--the chases and hair's breadth escapes--were the most rickety elements of the novel. The movie exposes just how threadbare they are. (A flock of birds suddenly distracting a killer from shooting our heroes?) Some of the escapes here would barely pass muster in a silent-movie serial. Over the years Howard has proven a director of great versatility, from "Splash" to "Apollo 13," but "The Da Vinci Code" doesn't play to his strengths, to say the least. He's good at bringing out the humanity of his characters, but what is there to bring out in the bug-eyed albino Silas, a villain so improbable he makes an actor as good as Paul Bettany look hapless? "The Da Vinci Code" is handsome, expensive-looking and filled with impressive castles, churches, chateaus and museums. It even has a few provocative theories about history. The only thing missing is actual human beings.