Monday, May 22, 2006

Why Didn't The Da Vinci Code Movie Work? I Have A Theory.

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.


blankfist said...

That's a shame about The Da Vinci Code - HB and I were going to check it out this weekend, but once I mentioned how Nathan thought it to be a huge pile of pooh, we both opted for a filet mignon dinner at Banderas. My filet was a little tough and tasted like fish, so I sent it back. That's the first time I've ever done that.

This summer's roster of movies looks to be a disappointment, I think. At least MI3 was a blast! It's about as much action as you can stand - and it's great fun. X-Men 3 will be a disappointment, I'm sure, and Superman will probably be fun but unfulfilling. Singer did a fair job with the first X-Men movie, but he knocked the second one out of the park. Let's hope Supes turns out to be good - although I've seen a clip where someone shoots Supes dead in the face with a handgun, and Singer does this slow-mo Matrix shot around Supes's eye as the bullet ricochets off it. It's lame. Very lame. And it looks like a videogame instead of a movie.

Whatever happened to movies looking like movies?

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest will be awesome. Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot do not mostly disappoint. I know Crane hated the first one, but he's in the minority here.

harwell said...

I suspect that like last year it may be the comedies that are the real winners of the summer. Nacho Libre, The Break Up, Talladega Nights: the Ricky Bobby Story, and that Dupree movie with Owen Wilson all look like a reasonably good time at the movies to me. At the very least, they don't look like they'll disappoint; you sort of can tell what you're going to get from the previews.

Excellent reviews though, Crane. I admit I was really surprised to see there was a murder mystery element to Art School Confidential. How many movies have been made now about a possible murder on a college campus? Even if it's a spoof, using this as a major plot element doesn't seem to be the stuff I want to see from the guy who made Crumb, Ghost World, and Bad Santa...

As for Da Vinci, who's a filmmaker that you think would've nailed it?

I haven't read the book, so I can't really offer a whole lot. I think I'm one of three people, counting myself, my wife, and I assume Heath. He hates books.

Peter said...

the guy who did the constant gardner would have been great for the code

blankfist said...

Holy crap! I forgot about Nacho Libré! That's gonna be genius.

Craig Moorhead said...

I think the problem with the Da Vinci Code is Tom Hanks' weird mullet. More than anything, that's why I'm not going.

That and the fact that Akiva Goldsman, the hardest working blockbuster screenwriter who never wrote a good screenplay, wrote the screenplay.

Anonymous said...

Da Vinci Code could have been interesting had someone like Brett Ratner directed it - he is the shit!


JudgeHolden said...

I'm the guy who always thought Hanks's Da Vinci code hair was cool. It seems like the haircut of an academic who doesn't care that much about how "with it" he seems.

As for Akiva, I think he's proof that, in Hollywood, talent does not always out. Why wasn't Akiva put in "screenwriter jail" the way Schumacher was put in "director jail" after the Batman and Robin debacle? Weren't they both culpable for that abomination? I doubt seriously that Akiva wrote a much better screenplay that Schumacher ruined. Since Akiva did Batman Forever also, I have to think they were on the same page throughout. All I can guess is that Akiva must have some brilliant interpersonal skills to get directors with actual talent to ignore screenwriters with actual talent and clamor for more Akiva-brand script-dreck.

As for a director that would have nailed the Da Vinci Code, I think the obvious answer is Steven Spielberg. He specializes in the big-budget event movie, and his knack for knowing what is and what isn't cinematic would have led him through the tangle of Da Vinci exposition without letting the movie drag. As for other directors who would have done good work with the material, I don't know. Zack Snyder? Christopher Nolan? Anyone else feel like they're not too many directors out there worth getting excited about? Sure, there are plenty of directors who I'd like to see continue doing what they've been doing (Sam Raimi with the Spider Man movies, Robert Rodriguez with the Sin City movies), but not too many who I'd like to see tackle almost anything, just to see their take on fresh material. Is it just me? Am I being a 29-year old crank?

Also: does anyone else think Cars looks like the first bad Pixar movie? What a bad trailer they've got running for that thing. Every time I hear Larry the Cable Guy talk I get a little nauseated.

Speck said...

I saw Da Vinci Code last night.

I had not read the book. And I hate Akiva Goldsman...and the screenplay just furthered that that hatred.

BUT the core story was so good, that I got into it and enjoyed the movie a lot. It really had me thinking a lot after the movie.

Granted had I read the book, which I refuse because the author is douche, I most likely would have been unfulfilled by the movie.

I just got back from seeing Over the Hedge...meh...not enough "over the kids heads" jokes.

harwell said...

Thanks, Speck. You give me hope that my laziness in reading the book might result in at least enjoying the novelty of the plot. I'll probably see it. Crane, you're on the nose with your assessment of the Hanks' hair motivation. I caught Howard and Brian Grazer on Sunday Morning Shootout and they said pretty much exactly the same thing. So, when Hanks thinks bachelor + college professor, he apparently thinks pseudo-mullet. I don't mind it myself. I think he definitely looks younger with that hair. By the way, anybody see the Right Said Fred spoof video with Hanks from a recent SNL? One of the chorus chants was "Please don't crush my testicles." Very funny. Seriously, not just SNL funny, but funny-funny.

Cars looks pretty, but it doesn't look pretty funny. I thought the same thing though about the previews for Monsters and Nemo and I love both those movies. Fell asleep during the Incredibles. Been meaning to see it again, but then again...super hero spoofs? Ehh.

What about a Ridle Scott Da Vinci Code?

Speck said...

Ridley Scott Da Vinci code =

Same quick cut visual styel we have to know with they female singer making vocal tones over the dramatic moments in the soundtrack.

Nathan said...

i tried starting this converstation on the Millen like 5 days ago. No bites at all.

Crane is much better liked than me.

harwell said...

So dark the con of Hines...

blankfist said...

Heed the Nathan. 6+6+06.

Cars could be Pixar's first real flop - that is if you count A Bug's Life as a passable movie. I do. It's just passable. But, Cars? Meh. Probably going to be a disappointment. It's that "Disney" part of the "Disney Pixar" that makes me feel that way.

Heed the Disney.

Captain Mike said...

Speck, for the love of Mary Magdalene-Christ, proofread.

Speck said...

cap'n mike...if it drives you nuts then NO!