In the town where I live, near the western edge of "the south," you can't drive down any of the main thoroughfares right now without passing two or three churches advertising upcoming sermons that either blast The Da Vinci Code ("The Da Vinci Deception!") or thoughtfully exploit it ("Faith, Fact Or Fiction?"). So a part of me was hoping I'd have to cross a little picket line on my way into the theater this week. Nothing against churchgoing types–I go myself, sort of–but when you're surrounded by piety all the time, it's only natural to crave a little sin. (When the first restaurant to serve alcohol opened in our town last year, I drank that first glass of wine with a tingle of defiance.)

As it happened, the courtyard was quiet outside the multiplex showing The Da Vinci Code. But the theater was full, and there was a kind of hushed awe when the movie got to the scenes that questioned the divinity of Christ and attacked the foundations of Catholicism. (Around here, the former doesn't go over so well, while the latter is called "making conversation.")

The Da Vinci Code is the first blockbuster of this project to have a reasonably impressive opening weekend at the box office, and if those numbers hold up in the coming weeks, it'll be because people who've read the novel want to see it dramatized, and people who haven't read the novel–like me–want that charge of being told things we're not sure we're supposed to know. Secret knowledge stories can be a lot of fun, from Italian giallo thrillers to Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum to the deeply underrated The Matrix Reloaded (which stole from the best "everything you know is wrong" scenes in graphic novels like Cerebus: Church & State and V For Vendetta).

The problem with putting all this revisionist history in movie form, as has already been pointed out by nearly every critic of The Da Vinci Code, is that it requires the characters to find calm places where they can talk out the backstory. The first 45 minutes or so of The Da Vinci Code is pretty dire, as director Ron Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman laboriously put all the pieces on the board. Later, when the clues to "history's greatest mystery" start coming together, and author Dan Brown's alternate version of Christianity gets professed in full, the movie builds some of the "can't wait to see what's next" momentum that fans of the book described. And Howard gradually develops a neat visual statement of theme, using CGI to bring history to life in the present day, and showing how the ancient and the modern are connected.

But aside from those moments when Ian McKellan points out the covert messages in Da Vinci's The Last Supper and everyone in the theater nervously glances at the ceiling to see if The Hand Of God is going to reach down and smite us, nothing here really stings or sticks. If the true test of a blockbuster is whether people will want to see it again, then The Da Vinci Code is yet another summer dud. It lacks wit and levity, and even the extended argument for a millennia-old Catholic conspiracy plays like an outline: a Power Point presentation, not a work of real scholarship. Once the viewer "gets it," there's no need to revisit it.

Howard is a Hollywood craftsman of limited artistry (with rare exceptions, including last year's excellent Cinderella Man), and he's really slogging here, unable to find a way to turn a campus lecture series into a movie. The Da Vinci Code is unlikely to shake anyone's faith … though it might make them duck their head a little if they meet a fellow parishoner on the way out of the theater.

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This week's trailers-in-brief: Saw the new, longer trailer for The Lady In The Water, which seems to reveal a lot more plot than M. Night Shyamalan usually does, and definitely plays up the horror elements to a surprising degree, given that he's been describing the movie in Summer Preview packages as a kind of "bedtime story." Also saw The Omen trailer again, and noticed for the first time that Mia Farrow apparently has a supporting role in this. A nod to Rosemary's Baby, surely. Almost clever.

Anyway, nothing I saw at the multiples this weekend could be as entertaining as the headline of the year, which kept popping up on newswires: "Axl: Hilfiger 'just kept smacking me'."

Now that's priceless.

***

Next week: X-Men: The Last Stand! Via Chicago, and on opening night.

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