“Your ruse is pathetic,” says one of the villains in The Da Vinci Code, the much-anticipated movie based on Dan Brown’s best-selling book. He’s talking to the character played by Tom Hanks, but he might as well be speaking to everybody involved in the production of this dull and plodding film.
Don’t boycott this movie because you’ve heard that its content is objectionable; skip it because it commits the sin of failing to entertain.
Let me lay down a couple of markers: I’ve said my piece about the phenomenon of The Da Vinci Code here and here. For all of the novel’s well-documented problems, I found it to be a serviceable thriller. It certainly held my interest. I especially enjoyed the intellectual exercise of looking at Leonardo’s The Last Supper harder than I’d ever looked at it before (which certainly is not to say I believe a word of what Brown claims about it).
Yet the movie isn’t as good as the book. It’s not even close. It retains all of the bad stuff–bogus history, idiotic theology, antipathy toward Catholicism, general humorlessness–without figuring out how to import the good stuff. In both book and movie, for example, the plot at one point turns on the need to figure out a puzzle involving Fibonacci numbers. Don’t know what these are? In the book, that’s no problem because they’re explained in sufficient but not mind-numbing detail. One of the small pleasures of the novel is the sense that you’re figuring out a series of riddles along with the characters. The movie, however, makes no attempt even to define the Fibonacci numbers. Instead, we see Hanks furrow his brow, hear him mutter something about Fibonacci, and then rush off to the next scene. We’re supposed to think he’s really smart, but we’re left none the wiser.
Have you ever read a thriller that feels like it ought to be a movie? Sometimes that’s a compliment, based on a book’s snappy dialogue and brisk plot. The film version of The Da Vinci Code is the reverse–a movie that feels like it ought to be a book. That’s not a compliment, because it means that all sorts of plot details aren’t adequately explained. I didn’t struggle to follow the movie because I was already familiar with the story. Moviegoers who have not read the book, however, may feel lost amid the rapid-fire references to the Council of Nicea, the Templars, and so on.
Opus Dei, the conservative Catholic order demonized in The Da Vinci Code, already has announced its objections to this entire enterprise. Members certainly will not approve of their portrayal in the movie, especially when a crippled old man beats up their freaky albino assassin, who previously has displayed X-Man-like superpowers. (Even apart from this, he actually isn’t much of an assassin: He murders an elderly nun without a problem, but he inexplicably fails to finish a hit early on that allows the whole lumbering plot to begin.) Yet the group with the biggest beef is probably the French police. As portrayed in the film, this must be the most easily duped and evaded organization in the history of law enforcement. What a bunch of numbskulls! They are Keystone Cops with French accents. When they are fooled, which is often, they sputter “merde!” To make matters worse, none of it is even comical–at least not intentionally. And the single French joke in the film–and oh, dear reader, am I ever a sucker for French jokes!–falls totally flat.
Dan Brown’s book has been thoroughly debunked, often by people who are sincerely concerned that it will mislead lead the gullible. I’ve not completely shared this concern because I’ve been skeptical of the book’s ability to persuade anybody who took organized religion seriously in the first place. I’ve even speculated that the novel might lead people in orthodox directions–I know of one person who joined Opus Dei after reading The Da Vinci Code and investigating the group, which he hadn’t known about beforehand.
Whatever the case, the movie will now undergo its own round of earnest debunking, as many of the fibs and flaws from the book have found their way onto the big screen. Yet the film is ultimately not an effective vehicle for the book’s ideas. It doesn’t even have the courage of its own convictions. The movie is more or less true to the novel except in one significant respect: Robert Langdon, the character played by Hanks, says a few words in favor of Christianity–or at least the power of prayer–in a scene toward the end. This won’t mollify Brown’s critics, nor should it, because it feels so dishonest. Is it meant to pander? Is it meant to raise last-minute doubts about Brown’s core thesis that Jesus was an ordinary guy like you and me–you know, kinda spiritual and sorta inspiring but basically just a dude? Whatever the case, it suggests that the moviemakers have their own misgivings about what the movie tries to say over the course of a yawn-inducing two-and-a-half hours. And if they aren’t sure about what their movie says, then why should anybody else believe it?
Unless you’re a French cop, of course. I hear that they’ll believe anything.
— John J. Miller is national political reporter for National Review and the author, most recently, of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.