The Da Vinci Code

We need to be clear on something first: “The Da Vinci Code” is not a great book. It’s a fun book, and a quick read, and it has some nifty ideas, but let’s be honest: The writing is pedestrian and the story is ludicrous. It’s the literary equivalent of a movie like “Independence Day” or a restaurant like McDonald’s.

There’s no shame in enjoying a book like that, or a movie like that, or a hamburger from there (I’m a fan of all three) — but you wouldn’t describe any of them as outstanding examples of their craft, would you? If you would, you need to read more books/watch more movies/dine out more often.

The point is, it’s unlikely that a movie version of “The Da Vinci Code” would be brilliant cinema, at least not without completely overhauling the book. It becomes even less likely when that most generically competent and uninteresting of directors Ron Howard gets involved, and the odds drop even further when Howard brings his favorite generic screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (“A Beautiful Mind,” “I, Robot,” “Batman & Robin”) with him.

Sure enough, “The Da Vinci Code” is a thick, bloated film in which very serious people dash around Europe while blurting important-sounding dialogue. They are prone to over-dramatic behavior, as when a Catholic higher-up says that “blood is being spilled,” and to make the point, he pours wine all over the table. There’s a lot of that sort of thing.

It all begins, as you recall from reading Dan Brown’s novel two summers ago, with an old scholar being murdered in the Louvre. American tweed Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), in town for a lecture and book-signing, is summoned to the crime scene to help analyze cryptic clues left by the victim, only to discover — with the help of the deceased’s granddaughter Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou) — that he himself is a suspect in the killing.

Robert and Sophie are soon on the run, fleeing police while deciphering the old man’s clues. Seems the fellow was fond of anagrams, puzzles, riddles, cryptograms and treasure hunts. He was also a member of a secret society called the Priory of Sion, which for centuries has guarded the world’s most closely kept secret: the true nature and current whereabouts of the Holy Grail. If Robert and Sophie can figure out all the clues, they will unlock these secrets — secrets that certain factions of the Catholic Church would kill to keep hidden! (Specifically, there is a masochistic albino monk played by Paul Bettany who freelances as an assassin.)

The Dan Brown/Tom Hanks Runs Through Museums series:

“The Da Vinci Code” (2006) C+
“Angels & Demons” (2009) C+
“Inferno” (2010) C

Luckily, Robert knows a Holy Grail expert, a dotty English man named Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen), whose last name always, ALWAYS makes me think “Teabag.” Teabing is perfectly delighted to get involved in a good old-fashioned caper, first giving Sophie (and us) some background on the legends surrounding the Grail. And the hunt is on!

Yes, the film lacks a good climax, or even any decent momentum, and is instead just a series of events of average intensity, none more perilous than any other. And yes, it’s definitely too long. But where it really goes wrong is in taking itself so darned seriously.

Take Robert and Sophie’s visit to her grandfather’s safety deposit box, for example. They’re told that one wrong entry in the password will DISABLE THE SYSTEM, a silly, unnecessary detail that’s supposed to add suspense. (What if they don’t enter the right code?!) A few minutes later, when the police show up looking for them, the bank manager tells them this particular account has a “safe-passage clause,” and he ushers them quickly into the back of an armored car to make their escape. Presumably, the safe-passage clause dictates that if the account holder is ever on the run from Johnny Law, the bank is obligated to help him hide. Me, I have to fight just to get free checking.

This is goofy stuff, folks, but Howard and his stern-faced actors treat it like it’s Shakespeare, and not the fun kind, either. Tom Hanks has never seemed so dull, and the pixie-ish Audrey Tautou’s only job is to be surprised by everything. (“What? Quoi? Are you saying…? Do you mean…?” etc.)

In fact, Ian McKellen is the only person in the movie who seems to be enjoying himself. He alone embraces the story’s inherent outrageousness, rather than pretending it doesn’t exist. I bet Ron Howard thinks it’s a brilliant book, while McKellen read it on a plane once, smiled, and forgot all about it.

C+ (2 hrs., 29 min.; PG-13, a little profanity, some brief strong violence, unsettling albino nudity.)