The Da Vinci Code

Let’s pray there is no afterlife, because I’d hate to be trapped with Tom Hanks for eternity.  It’s not only the atrocious hair, which was bad in Splash, worse in Philadelphia (that Morrissey curl!), and simply foul in Forrest Gump.  It’s that ever since his first Oscar, when he banished the demons of Turner and Hooch and became Academy Award Winner Tom Hanks, he’s obliged himself to pick gilded, solemn parts that match his trophy, and are equally stiff.

Hanks’ Robert Langdon is yet another one of his self-serious bores.  He’s a genius who bears a remarkable resemblance to a crumpled paper bag; his face, clothes, and hair seem to sag on his frame like embarrassed teenagers trying to put some distance between themselves and his pedantry.  A Harvard symbologist, he’s in Paris doling out his brains when a police captain (Jean Reno) rudely rips him from his book signing and drags him to the Louvre to check out a corpse.  Captain Bezu is no scholar, so when Hanks rhapsodizes about the entranceway’s pyramidal architecture, he rolls his eyes and replies “Fascinating.”

When Hanks and Audrey Tautou (as Sophie the code-breaker) join forces, there’s scant worry that they’ll be forced into an unappetizing snogging session, as their characters do in the book.  They’re being chased by a battalion of violent cops and Christians for one, so there’s little time to admire Tautou’s wan beauty, drained here of its Amelie glow.  Their worst enemy, however, is Dan Brown’s gargantuan bestseller.

What seems credible on page is ludicrous in action.  Movies compress pages of information into seconds, and the shrinking scale of tension magnifies their implausibilities.  The chapter when Robert and Sophie realize that Sauniere, the dead man in the museum spent his last minutes alive leaving a trail of clues around the Louvre to start them on their nerd quest is laughable in its 60 seconds on screen.  It’s impossible not to call bullshit on Sauniere’s insanely inscrutable treasure hunt when your eyes are rapidly taking in the gallery’s elephantine hallways mussed by his blood.  Same goes for the logic puzzles that have a stranglehold on the plot.  Anagrams, riddles, Fibonacci, backwards fonts.  The sleuthing duo can’t even enter their friend’s mansion without answering three riddles on British culture.  No time for chemistry or conversation; there’s yet another brain-twister to solve.

Brown’s indulgent witness statement for his plagiary trial admitted that his favorite pulpy tactic is to pepper his books with experts.  That way, he can catch readers up to speed on, say, the history of the Knights of Templar, with a multi-page lecture.  Sewn throughout 450 leisurely pages, these bookish interludes are more interesting than irritating.  Crammed shoulder to shoulder into a film, however, and Hanks might caution, “Ron Howard, we have a problem.”  Unlucky Sophie spends the middle third of her film acting a fool.  “Who are they?” she says, prompting Hanks to expound on Opus Dei.  “What’s that?” she wonders, as a religious scholar (sole highlight Ian McKellan) holds court on the history of the Holy Grail.  It’s like cramming for Catholic school under gunpoint.

Aware of the soporific minefield, director Howard jazzes up the action.  Each lecture is overlaid with flashback.  Of course, Christian history is all prayers and anger, so every flashback is a variation on a crowd shaking their fists in fury.  The umpteen puzzles get the game show treatment with gratuitous laser graphics and an dramatically-scored sequence involving a web browser.  “I’ve got to get to a library – fast!” gushes Hanks.  I’ve got to get to the grocery store, which would be only marginally less exciting.

Here’s my theory on Brown’s astounding stateside success: his high brow thrillers both flatter and enrich.  By focusing them on works of common, yet not base knowledge (the Mona Lisa, Jesus), he makes his readers feel smart.  Then his (occasionally fraudulent) take on these sign points lets people feel their education rose along with their pulse, like swallowing a delicious vitamin.  Also, he’s an equal opportunity offender, which is great fun for both blue and red state bookworms.  Where’s the secular humanist uprising against Brown’s insult that a liberal intellectual who bemoans that  “as long as there has been one true god, there has been killing in his name,” would try to establish peace….with a gun.  That’s logic that only makes sense if you’re in the White House.  At least if Dan Brown was president, kids might be reading at a higher level than My Pet Goat.

Originally published in the IE Weekly

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