Since it first began leaping off bookshelves, “The Da Vinci Code” has generally been spun one of two ways: By some, as heretical, Catholic-bashing propaganda. By others, as a thought-provoking but essentially harmless piece of conspiracy fiction fluff.
Maybe it’s both. After all, what made Dan Brown’s 60-million-copy best-seller such a global literary sensation? Was it the hackneyed character development? The thudding dialogue? The gimmicky if effective suspense? I think not. It was the audacity of it, the density and scope of its skepticism, the portrayal of modern Christendom as a distorted, misogynistic tradition founded on secrets and lies.
Darn right it was heresy — or maybe McHeresy is a more apt term, given the novel’s uncanny mass appeal.
In their much-ballyhooed adaptation of “The Da Vinci Code,” director Ron Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (“A Beautiful Mind”) capably preserve the most provocative ideas in Brown’s book, including the now not-so-secret sophism that Jesus fathered a child with Mary Magdalene. Beyond that, they face a more fundamental storytelling challenge: How to preserve the spirit of the book without slipping into slavish literal-mindedness. And that’s a problem. While never quite dull, Howard’s movie is a blocky, mostly joyless affair that sacrifices cinematic impulse for literary diligence. “De Vinci” fans will find it coldly recognizable; nonfans will wonder what the fuss is all about.
The acting is no great shakes, either. As Robert Langdon, an eminent Harvard symbologist who Parisian police rip away from a book signing to help investigate a murder at the city’s venerable Louvre museum, Tom Hanks gives a performance that might generously be described as “stolid.” Even as Langdon ogles the victim — arms and legs akimbo, posed to resemble da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, and surrounded by a perplexing jumble of numbers and invisible ink messages — Hanks remains curiously offline. For what it’s worth, he acts like somebody who already read the book and knows all too well how the pagan-themed intrigue will play out.
French actress Audrey Tautou (“Amelie”) fares slightly better as Sophie Neveu, a police cryptologist and — unbeknownst to the gruff lead detective, Fache (Jean Reno) — the estranged granddaughter of the victim.
Neveu believes Langdon is being framed, and also believes that her grandfather coded his own death scene to implicate the real killer. As a woman hounded by some unsavory childhood memory, Tautou projects a satisfying welter of emotions.
What Tautou and Hanks lack together is any hint of chemistry. Even as Langdon and Neveu unscramble anagrams, poke behind priceless paintings and plunge into a fugitive adventure on the nighttime streets of Paris, their interest in each other remains largely, chastely academic.
Based on her grandfather’s scribbles, Langdon suspects that the old man was a member of an ancient brotherhood hunted by the Vatican that is sworn to protect the secret of Christ’s bloodline — that is, the Holy Grail.
In lieu of magnetic leads, the movie boasts some intriguing satellite characters. Ian McKellen (“X-Men”) churns up a grand flurry of patrician selfamusement as Sir Leigh Teabing, a frail Grail scholar to whom Langdon turns for insight and refuge. Paul Bettany is chilling as Silas, the selfflagellating albino monk dispatched by an Opus Dei bishop (Alfred Molina) to hunt down the Grail at all costs.
Without a doubt, the movie looks first-rate, with moody, ominous cinematography by Salvatore Totino, Howard’s collaborator on “Cinderella Man.” And one must be impressed by the on-location authenticity of the set pieces, particularly the dizzying opening sequence at the Louvre, shot under the humbling gaze of Europe’s most prized masterworks.
Unfortunately, in giving “The Da Vinci Code” visual life, Howard — a workmanlike director prone to occasional bouts of genius — has also amplified the book’s more kitschy, preposterous elements. Killer albino monks? Deathbed anagrams? Fans who gladly devoured it the first time will be surprised how it tastes coming up.