I'd been interested in seeing The Da Vinci Code for a long time (I am one of those people who actually enjoyed the book, so I guess that makes me a dork). I found the critical reaction to the film at Cannes earlier this week quite fascinating. There has been so much buzz and controversy around this film that I suppose it was inevitable the bulk of critics would hate it (or at least pretend to hate it), but the feeding frenzy after the press premiere of the film struck me as being a little overboard. Critics have been practically falling over each other right and left in some kind of bizarre critical pissing contest over who can say the cleverest and snarkiest things about Ron Howard's little film, and having seen Da Vinci tonight with a sneak preview crowd, I'm honestly at a bit of a loss as to why. I mean, the film is sitting at a dismal 16% on Rotten Tomatoes at the moment -- 16%! For comparison, consider, for a moment, that Britney Spears' crapfest Crossroads has a 15%. The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl? 20%. Dickie Roberts (which, for the love of God, starred David-freaking-Spade!) has a 23%. Even Big Momma's House got a 30%. Is The Da Vinci Code a worse movie than Shark Boy and Lava Girl or Dickie Roberts? Seriously?
No, it's not. Don't get me wrong, The Da Vinci Code has its flaws, to be sure, but is it really such a bad film that it deserves the venom that's been hurled at it? Okay, yes, it does have a gargantuan amount of exposition, and yes, I hate exposition as much as the next person. To be perfectly fair, though, the book has a lot of expository detail that had to make its way into the movie somehow, or else the storyline would make no sense whatsoever; I'm not sure that even with the detailed exposition the film would make sense to someone who hasn't read the book. When I heard the inevitable movie was going to be made of Dan Brown's controversial best-seller, my first thought (well, after "I hope they cast Harrison Ford as Robert Langdon") was, "How the hell are they going to get all the background info into the film without boring the hell out of the audience?" Where many of the film's flaws lie, it's hard to know whether to lay the blame more properly on Howard and scriptwriter Akiva Goldsman for their mostly faithful adaptation or on Dan Brown for the source material.
Howard tries to keep the exposition as "show-not-tell" as possible by overlaying historical scenes during the lengthy expository monologues. In some cases, this works out okay; in others it's just confusing. The bigger question is, how well-suited is Tom Hanks for the role of Robert Langdon? Unfortunately, not very, and I say this as someone who generally likes Hanks -- he's just not a good fit for this character. I would have preferred Harrison Ford, but at least Howard didn't cast Russell Crowe in the part. Langdon is supposed to be a man who is passionate about numbers and symbols, and Hanks seems oddly detached from the role. In Philadelphia and Big, Hanks was the characters he portrayed. He totally became the role. In Da Vinci, Hanks mostly meanders through his scenes with a curious look of bewilderment; perhaps he thought that's how Langdon would look, but it comes across more as if Hanks himself is wondering what exactly he's doing in this film. If ten minutes into a film I'm still thinking of an actor as himself and not the character he's playing, that's not a good sign. If I'm still thinking of him as himself at the end of the film, that's a really bad sign, and such was the case with Hanks' performance as Robert Langdon.
I was more worried about Audrey Tautou (Amelie) as Sophie, but of Hanks and Tautou, I felt Tautou put in a stronger performance. At least she seemed to genuinely believe in her character, although she did occasionally wear a look of slight befuddlement as she was forced to utter some of the more ridiculous lines in the film. Howard and scribe Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man) do a fairly convincing job of translating the character of Sophie from page to screen, and it was actually nice to see Howard working with someone different. The thing about Howard is that he seems to get into this "comfort zone" with his filmmaking, wherein he works with the same people, and this tendency can have the effect of making his films somewhat predictable. He worked with Hanks, of course, in Apollo 13, and with Paul Bettany, who plays Silas the freaky albino monk, in A Beautiful Mind, and he's partnered with Goldsman several times. So it was rather a nice change to see him working with Tautou. Ian McKellan, not unexpectedly, almost entirely steals the show as Sir Leigh Teabing. Bettany does an adequate job with Silas but the script is a little skimpy with the portions on this character, who was one of the most fascinating in the book and, by all rights, should have been in the movie as well. Silas comes across as far less creepy and compelling here, in spite of Bettany's best efforts at the art of self-flagellation.
So, on the downside we have the endless exposition, the repeating of details of the myth surrounding the Priory of Scion ad nauseum (okay, it concerns Mary Magdalene, we get that), Hanks' rather wooden and emotionally-detached performance, some gratuitous foreshadowing, and the surprising dullness of Silas the monk. On the upside, we have a fairly entertaining story, an interesting twist (well, it was a twist when I read it in the book several years ago, and to be honest, I'd almost forgotten it), an attempt by Howard and Goldsman to lighten the load of the exposition, a decent performance by Tautou and a great one by McKellan -- and no Britney Spears, David Spade, or guys in fat suits. All in all, that doesn't add up to the kind of lashing this film has been receiving by critics.
The thing is, though, that seeing a film like Da Vinci with a bunch of other cynical critics is a bit like hanging out in the junior high cafeteria; once the popular kids start picking on the dorky guy in the corner, he's dead meat, and not a lot of other kids are going to stand up in defense of him. I don't think Ron Howard is particularly a master of all things cinematic, but neither is he the worst director to make a film or two over the past decade, and he doesn't really deserve the lunchroom beating he's gotten over this film. As I said the other day, what I really wanted to see was how an audience of real people would react to this film, and the packed preview screening crowd I saw it with, I can tell you, didn't hate it. They were buzzing about the film as they left, in mostly a positive way; I didn't hear anyone berating the film as I did after American Dreamz. Time will tell whether The Da Vinci Code will end up tanking, but here's my guess: I think this film is going to have a solid opening weekend, that word of mouth will involve more backlash against the critics' harsh treatment of the film than the film itself, and that Howard is going to have the last laugh.