I saw a couple movies over the weekend. First and foremost, I saw The Da Vinci Code. I went into the screening with very low expectations -- the critics had been almost uniformly unkind to the movie, and our man in Taiwan, Nathan Hines, chimed in with a very negative review. I thought I was about to see something on the level of a Mortal Kombat sequel. Well, the movie's not that bad, but what's most surprising about the movie is that it wasn't better. The novel wasn't a great thriller by any means, but it's theories about what really happened to Jesus after he was crucified made it a must-read for about 300 trillion people. And though it wasn't great literature, its saving grace was that it was fast-paced, exciting, and one day, it would make a pretty great movie. That it only became an okay one is a pretty incredible disappointment, given the original novel's screenplay-like attributes.
The acting is very low-key, but not terrible. The directing is proficient, but not inspired (which amounts to Ron Howard's filmic signature), and the pacing is deliberate but not as slow as I was expecting. The Da Vinci Code misfires in a lot of ways -- there's virtually no chemistry between any two actors; in a lot of scenes, the whole crew of thespians seem like they've just met and are all a little mystified as to what they're all doing on all of these night-shoots in Paris. The script, in many places, groans under the weight of all of the exposition the actors are required to recite. About 20 minutes in, the film essentially stops for 5 minutes while Hanks and Tatou sit around a Paris picnic table saying exposition to one another. Akiva sacrifices the movement and urgency Brown had going for him in his novel, so they can get through as much of Brown's Divinity of Jesus exposition as they can in the 2 and a half hours allotted. Howard tries to make this stuff move by superimposing these historic flashbacks over the modern-day scenery, but it's impossible to fake forward momentum when, by necessity, you're killing it.
What may be most striking about the movie's failure to live up to the original is this: the book makes the idea that the Catholic Church has been instrumental in covering up the true nature of Jesus Christ feel both revelatory and urgent. How then were Akiva and Ron able to make what Brown sells as the greatest cover-up in human history into something that comes off as dull, academic and not relevant? I think they did it by making the Robert Langdon character into a skeptic, and I think they did it deliberately to appease the phalanx of Christian critics they expected to boycott the movie.
When Hanks and Tatou finally get to Ian McKellan's manor for the bulk of the exposition, Hanks's Langdon becomes an intolerable bore who throws a wet blanket over all of Teabing's juicy revelations that made the novel worth reading in the first place. I don't remember Langdon in the novel essentially arguing on the Opus Dei side of the Divinity of Jesus argument. If your protagonist is a wet blanket who's heard it all before and essentially urges the audience to take everything they're seeing and hearing with a big grain of salt, the question becomes, "Who are they trying to convince, me or Tom Hanks?" Should the movie be about convincing Robert Langdon, or about convincing the audience? Does anyone who made this movie actually believe the central tenets of The Da Vinci Code, that Jesus lived and got married and had kids? Is it necessary that someone involved with the making of this movie believe it? In that respect, having Langdon be a skeptic about Jesus marrying Mary Magdalene and having children is a little like casting Earl Warren as the protagonist of JFK instead of Jim Garrison. In movies about cover-ups, I wonder if it's not always more effective to have a main character who is open to the idea of a conspiracy, if not entirely obsessed with it, and not someone who has to be beaten over the head throughout the movie, only to be convinced, finally, at the end. I bet even the Christians who think the whole idea is bunkum still went to the movie wanting to hear someone's point of view. One of the saving graces of The Passion of the Christ was that it had a definitive point of view. I'm having a hard time thinking of an instance where that's been a bad thing.
Anyway. On Friday I saw Art School Confidential, Terry Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes's follow-up to Ghost World. I thought Ghost World was a good film (I'm surprised by how much of it I still remember), but, for me, this one fails to live up to its predecessor. At its core Art School Confidential's supposed to be a hard-nosed satire of art school, and when it is that, I think it works, and it works very well. But when it becomes an indictment of the world of modern art (which, in my limited experience, doesn't have much to do with art school) it falls flat with boring, done-to-death criticisms. For example, during John Malkovich's drawing and painting class, the student who produces the least accomplished, least effective art is venerated by the class and the teacher, while the student with real ability is ignored or derided. Ho-hum. Everyone from Tom Wolfe to Murphy Brown has tackled the emptiness of the art world, why did Zwigoff and Clowes decide they needed to add their voice to the nonexistent fray?
Art School Confidential starts out promisingly enough, hilariously identifying the different art student stereotypes and then making viscous fun of them, but whatever subversive, satiric power ASC had slowly dies as the story moves further and further away from satirizing Strathmore Academy, until, by the end, Zwigoff and Clowes don't seem to know what their movie's about anymore, and resort, finally, to a weak, tacked-on social commentary on the phenomenon of celebrity serial killers. The filmmakers lost sight of what they wanted to say, I think, but remembered that they wanted to be cynical about it, whatever it was. Blind cynicism wasn't enough to carry this movie.
24 season finale tonight. Jack Bauer's totally going to execute the President. Gonna be awesome. More tomorrow.