'Code' Comes Off Cursory And Rushed

Christians are outraged and albinos are offended and people around the world who haven't even seen the film are angry simply, it seems, in preparation for being angry.

But everyone can just take a deep breath and calm down. Because the "The Da Vinci Code" is finally coming to theaters, and its biggest sin has nothing to do with the supposedly blasphemous nature of the source material, Dan Brown's blockbuster page turner.

Rather, its sin is of omission. Even at two and a half hours, director Ron Howard's adaptation feels cursory and rushed.

Then again, maybe Howard was doomed from the start. In taking an intricate book about a centuries-old religious mystery that's sold 60 million copies, Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman — with whom he spun gold with 2001's Oscar-winning "A Beautiful Mind" — inevitably had to trim something. Otherwise, they would have ended up with a miniseries.

What they've jettisoned, however, is the tension.

The novel is by no means great literature, but it is enormously engrossing. Much of what sucks you in is watching Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon and police cryptologist Sophie Neveu piece together clues left for them at a murder scene at the Louvre museum and at religious sites across Europe. They think things through; they draw from their experiences. They make mistakes; they finally solve one puzzle and move on to the next. And you're right alongside them, every breathless step of the way.

As played by longtime Howard favorite Tom Hanks and French actress Audrey Tautou, Robert and Sophie proceed from one problem to the next with such speed and ease, it's as if they're high-school kids on a scavenger hunt, looking for a stop sign and a No. 2 pencil.

Within seconds of finding the words "So dark the con of man," written on a painting in invisible ink, they realize it's an anagram for a work by Leonardo Da Vinci, which leads them to the next clue. And that mathematical sequence scrawled on the gallery floor? Of course it's the number of a Swiss bank account containing a hugely important portion of the secret. Duh.

It would help if we cared deeply about the characters who are willing to risk their lives to uncover this vast church cover-up — to find the long-hidden truth about the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Here, Robert and Sophie are barely fleshed out. We know a bit more about her because her mystery is the film's mystery; she finds out who she is as we find out more about the true nature of the Holy Grail. And Tautou, who's much prettier and more petite than the character in the book, nonetheless exhibits the necessary spunk and inquisitiveness for the role.

But Robert Langdon is little more than a tour guide in this version of "The Da Vinci Code" — though the tour, much of which was shot on location in Paris and London, is beautifully and ominously photographed by Salvatore Totino, who also shot Howard's "Cinderella Man."

In the book, Robert was a respected professor and famously sought-after bachelor in Boston. In the movie, he seems to have borrowed Rick Springfield's haircut, circa "Jessie's Girl," and that's his most distinctive personality trait. As sturdy and versatile an actor as Hanks can be, he can't work miracles when he's got nothing to work with.

The movie is actually more interesting when Robert and Sophie aren't in it — when they're on the run and everyone else is chasing them, from police captain and Opus Dei member Bezu Fache (a perfectly cast Jean Reno) to the opportunistic Bishop Aringarosa (an underused Alfred Molina) to Silas, the sadomasochistic albino assassin monk.

Clearly, this would be a juicy role for anyone to play; Paul Bettany, who also co-starred in Howard's "A Beautiful Mind," manages to do something totally unexpected. He makes us fear Silas and feel sorry for him at the same time. He makes us stare at his naked, scarred body not because the sight of it is gratuitous, but because it helps us understand his need for self-flagellation, the depth of his torment, the extent of his will. All this in just the first few scenes.

And then there's Ian McKellen, who could have walked on a sound stage and read the entire Bible and made it worthy of a $10 movie ticket. As Sir Leigh Teabing, the eccentric millionaire grail expert who provides Robert and Sophie with sanctuary and more answers than they'd hoped for, McKellen flat-out steals every moment he inhabits. He livens things up, immediately and gracefully, as a brilliant but dirty old man wandering around his cluttered French castle with a pair of canes and a mind full of conspiracy theories.

But it's where he leads Robert and Sophie, and ultimately the film itself, that might irk a whole different group we haven't mentioned yet: "Da Vinci Code" purists. We wouldn't dream of giving any secrets away. We'll just say the ending is slightly different, for better and for worse.

Something Robert says as the film reaches its conclusion, though, is more significant than anything else anyone has said about the film — off-screen, that is, not on it.

As Sophie struggles to understand her true identity, Robert tries to assuage her: "What matters is what you believe." Later in the scene, he repeats that phrase, placing the emphasis on the word "you." Surely this is Howard's olive branch to the critics and protesters, who are vocal and organized — his assurance that what he's offering is filmic fiction, and nothing blasphemous intended to undermine anyone's faith.

It's the strongest statement in the entire movie. And it comes far too late.

"The Da Vinci Code," a Columbia Pictures release, is rated PG-13 for disturbing images, violence, some nudity thematic material, brief drug references and sexual content.
By Christy Lemire