Wow has this movie stirred up one hell of a shitstorm.
It seems a hell of a lot of people are up in arms about what seemed like a surefire hit – the adaptation of an uber-best selling book that managed to not only get media attention, but media specials about it and its content. But sure enough, this story poked the hornets’ nest one too many times and people are screaming mad. Hell, even Albinos are pissed (because the books killer is an Albino) and they’re upset about defamation. Wah! The villain is an Albino! Um, slow down there, paleface. I’ve got a couple of Black, Eastern European and Middle Eastern friends waiting in line in front of you. Take a number.
But the Catholics. I understand why the Catholics are upset. Having been raised Catholic I know just how they tend to feel about Gnostic Christianity (when they acknowledge it at all) and lets face it, The Da Vinci Code is effectively a Gnostic Primer. Catholics are essentially taught that the Council of Nicea was a gathering of over 300 Bishops, who were divinely inspired by the holy spirit to put together what we know today as the Bible and the core beliefs of the Catholic church – some of which have no definitive scriptural basis (Papal Infallibility, anyone?).
In The Da Vinci Code, however, the Nicean Council is portrayed (in a cleverly and beautifully shot flashback) as a group of screaming religious men, all bent on getting their version of their faith canonized. Don’t get caught up in all the rigg-a-ma-roll about this Jesus with a wife business. That’s just the sexy part of the story (granted the crux of Da Vinci) that the media has picked up on. Jesus with a wife is the least of the Catholic’s problems with the film. Because in order to challenge the established beliefs about Jesus and Mary Magdalene, they have to question Nicea…and when you question Nicea you question EVERYTHING.
Nicea is the whole ball of wax. The solvency of the Bible, the divinity of Christ, the celebration of Holy days and pretty much everything that the Catholic Church (as well as many protestant faiths) hold to be absolute, divine truth. And that’s what’s got them so riled up. This story not only suggests, but quotes, the Gnostic gospels – those excised gospels held to simply be untrue by some and utter heresy by more extreme members of the faith. To them, this is dangerous rhetoric dressed up as fictional fun – not unlike last weeks Just My Luck.
And in one of the biggest media crapshoots I’ve ever seen, someone at Sony thought it would be a good idea to let the film speak for itself…to only a limited number of critics. You see, they sent out all of the usual press materials – but this time they had a label saying “FOR BROADCAST USE ONLY. NOT FOR INTERNET USE.” Then they held screenings that only permitted print/broadcast press to see the film. Except for the Cannes screening. That was the big enchilada. If it went over well at Cannes, those would be the only reviews anyone saw before release weekend. Brilliant. Simply brilliant.
In a week when only the protesters are getting coverage on the film and the Internet is abuzz with controversy – you don’t let anyone actually talk about the film itself. Wow, dude. You are so fired come Monday. I’d fire up that resume macro now. That goes beyond bonehead. Sure, if the Cannes screening had gone over well, you might have been a hero. But when Drudge Report and CNN have banner headlines reading “Da Vinci screening met by jeers and catcalls” and there’s no reviews out there to counter one screening’s take on the film? Total Bonehead.
Is this just a bitter “Oh why wasn’t I invited” rant? Well, it might be. If I didn’t actually like the film. Because I did. And with Variety, Hollywood Reporter, Entertainment Weekly and a slew of others ready and willing to jump the usual press embargo – this film is getting the short end of the stick. Because while many are ready and willing to paint this film as a total failure, it is in fact quite the opposite. This film hits everything it aims for. The big question is: what is it aiming for.
The Da Vinci Code always has been and always will be a story for 35+ mystery loving, book club members. Because, frankly, it’s never been that great a story. The premise is a good one, but it’s also an idea that’s been around for quite some time and is nothing new to religious history buffs. There are about 3 or 4 major theories floating around that “Prove” Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene – which no more prove anything than can be proved that he wasn’t. But to most people, it’s a fairly revolutionary idea.
Add to that the whole Knights Templar/Priory of Zion angle and now you’re covering territory that conspiracy buffs have gone over twenty times too many. But again, for those unfamiliar, it’s good stuff. The problem is that Dan Brown’s novel takes some big ideas and uses them as the groundwork for a fairly by the numbers and predictable detective novel. But one that has a very cinematic feel to it. With its success, adapting it was a no-brainer. But that overwhelming success came with its own set of problems.
First and foremost, they couldn’t change a thing. With a book this big and widely read, changing major plot points – or even very small ones – could turn the fanbase they were depending on into a pack of rabid “The Book was better” detractors. That meant keeping some of the lame twists, some of the stilted dialog that was so pivotal in the book and it meant they had to fit as much of the book into the film as possible.
And unfortunately, they brought in Akiva Goldsman. Now, we in the geek and critical community still haven’t let poor Akiva off the hook for the late 90’s triple threat that was Lost in Space, Practical Magic and his king of crappers, Batman and Robin. But that’s not why I’m gonna bust his balls today. That was too long ago. He’s no longer the worst writer in Hollywood. Now he’s simply mediocre.
Akiva’s biggest problem is that he doesn’t know how to tell a story to someone who already knows it. He’s like the guy that tells the Aristocrats without any of the good bits – because he feels the joke is good enough on its own. He tells the joke every time as if it were your first time hearing it. That’s his approach to screenwriting - despite the fact that his last few films have all been adaptations. A Beautiful Mind is a great example of this. I hear it was a great film by many, many people (I just didn’t see what they saw.) But if you ask them “Had you ever heard of John Nash before?” “Nope.” Those that had tended to find the film pretty slow and hard to deal with, because Akiva sets up the “Big Twist” that the characters…they’re almost all hallucinations. “Get it? Do you get it? I got ya didn’t I?” Those that did in fact know of Nash’s schizophrenia were forced to wait for the punch to see what the film should have been about – Nash dealing with his illness.
Well, Akiva takes that same approach here. Those familiar with the story or concepts are forced to wait for the good bits. But I gotta give him some credit here – the worst dialog in the film…is word for word from the book. That line that had audiences at Cannes jeering? ENTIRELY the book and simply no way to do right without risking the wrath of the fanbase. Despite this, there’re a few moments of dialog that are actually pretty sharp (including an excellent Gnostic in-joke that’s only funny if you’re familiar with the history of the Gospel of Phillip.)
Is the movie slow? Sure as hell is. But it’s a detective story, not an action film. Robert Langdon isn’t a supercop or a spy. He’s a college professor caught up in something bigger than himself. And he’s exactly the kind of wafer thin character that modern detective stories are rife with. Because modern detective stories are really about the characters the detective interacts with – not the detective himself. And they move slow. The film is far from boring, but it’s also far from very exciting. They have a lot of information to explain to tell the story right – and while many have criticized that it’s way too long, I can’t think of a single sequence that could really be cut or shortened. Will this work for all audiences? Hell no. I think that’s pretty clear right now. But the audience its aimed at – they’re gonna love it.
Me? I quite liked it. Ian McKellen is almost as fantastic as everyone says he is. He’s funny, charming and one hell of an interesting character – but Oscar worthy? Really? Only if it’s the annual “We’re sorry, we should have given this to you years ago” Academy Award (and yes, they should have.) The real acting story here, however, is Paul Bettany, who manages to completely transform himself not just physically (in the role of the aforementioned albino) but spiritually. This isn’t the wise cracking Paul Bettany we’ve all fallen in love with over the years. This is a seriously tortured man seeking redemption in the only way he knows how.
Every moment he’s on the screen he seems to be in a state of existential crisis and heartbreaking loss – and as he’s not the focus of the film, this never gets over done and he never seems to be the Eeyore “Poor me, poor me” of the story that it could have easily been under the watch of a lesser actor. If anyone at all walks away with a nomination for this, it will be an absolute crime if it’s not Bettany.
Howard’s work here is fantastic, evocative of his work on A Beautiful Mind. Visually it’s stunning at times, managing to once again visually show the inner workings of a genius mind (something not very easy to do.) He gets the aforementioned great performances out of McKellen and Bettany, as well as solid performances from Alfred Molina, Jurgen Prochnow and the first decent English language performance out of Jean Reno in a LONG time, and even manages to get passable performances out of Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou (despite the fact that they’re saddled with the thinnest characters imaginable in the story and aren’t given any room to really breath, let alone act.)
Honestly, Howard manages to make the best film possible from the material provided. But damnit, man, seriously. Take a break from the adaptations. You’re a great director who always gets limited by your source material. You haven’t handled original material in a decade. Cut loose, have some fun. Find a project that no one will freak out if you change things around to tell a better story. You can tell great stories, we’ve seen it. Now just tell an original one again.
Ultimately, I think this movie is getting overly panned – a negative reaction to the hype machine and controversy that’s kept this story in the press for several years. But a lot of people are going to like it. If you loved the book or if this thing has piqued your interest, it’s definitely worth checking out. If you’re a Paul Bettany fan, you owe it to yourself to see this for his performance. If you can’t get enough of Ian McKellen, then yeah, you should see it too. But if this thing simply doesn’t interest you, or you’re already “Da Vinci’d” out, then all I can say is that this movie has a few too many inherent flaws to be able to recommend it short of checking out the DVD. Like I said, I liked it. I enjoy a good detective story. But it falls short of any sort of greatness.
Until next time friends, smoke ‘em if ya got ‘em. I know I will.