Sometimes, even The A.V. Club isn’t impervious to the sexy allure of ostensible cultural garbage. Which is why there's I Watched This On Purpose, our feature exploring the impulse to spend time with trashy-looking yet in some way irresistible entertainments, playing the long odds in hopes of a real reward and a good time.
Cultural infamy: Peep this number: $758 million. That’s what The Da Vinci Code grossed. No amount of bad press and reactionary religious folks could stop this thing at the box office. Here’s the thing, though: I still know next to nothing about it. I only have a vague idea of what the bestselling book is about (a dude cracking a code in the Mona Lisa that leads to some shady dealings at the Vatican?), and I don’t think I’ve had any discussions about the movie with anybody except Keith Phipps, who told me he turned it off. So on the one hand, there’s a lot of negative critical thought out there (our own Tasha Robinson damned it with the faintest of praise, saying it “isn’t terrible”), but on the other, could $760 million worth of people be completely wrong? (Yeah, they probably could.) I went into this thing with an open mind, yet low-ish expectations, hoping for some twisty-turny fun and maybe some Indiana Jones-like (pre-Crystal Skull—fuck you, Crystal Skull) adventure. For the record, Da Vinci Code has a 48 on Metacritic (and perhaps worse yet, a 5.7 reader rating) and a 24 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Also: PG-13, a.k.a. the rating of doom.
Curiosity factor: I’ve had a lingering desire to watch The Da Vinci Code since it came out way back in 2006, but that desire never really started burning. I’ve probably watched hundreds of movies since then, and Da Vinci has never made it near the top of my Netflix queue. The impetus to finally do it: Angels & Demons. I don’t know why, because I probably won’t see that one until well after the fact, either. Also, there’s that box-office figure again. I’m not fetishizing popular things, but there’s definitely a curiosity about something that it seems like the entire world has watched, even though they apparently didn’t like it very much. (That said, I will not watch Dancing With The Stars or American Idol, even if I’m the last person on earth left out of that water-cooler discussion.) Tom Hanks is fairly reliable, too, isn’t he? And Ron Howard? Ron Howard did the voiceover on Arrested Development, remember? And he was Opie Cunningham!
The viewing experience: Let the damnation by faint praise continue, and let’s spice it up with a little bit of mild annoyance. I have seen worse movies about tricky codes and numbers. (The Number 23, I’m looking at you.) I have seen far better movies about tricky maps and adventures. (National Treasure, I’m looking ashamedly sideways in your direction.) But The Da Vinci Code aims for something triumphant and revelatory, and it nails something not quite as riveting as The Goonies. Just because Jesus is involved doesn’t mean this thing automatically gets to be super-meaningful.
The major problem nobody told me about (or that I chose to ignore) is that The Da Vinci Code plays like a children’s movie, especially in the first hour of its overlong two and a half. We quickly establish Tom Hanks as a dull (but smart) symbologist, then drop him into a murder scene—an albino monk has killed a scholar, who left a bunch of clues on his body, including the words “Find Robert Langdon.” (Apparently he didn’t have the good sense to write “Find the only albino dude dressed in monk robes and carrying a Glock around Paris.”) For a hot minute, DVC feels like a choose-your-own-adventure book or worse yet, a videogame: Hanks and button-cute Audrey Tautou follow the dead scholar’s very slightly cryptic clues (A word scramble? Seriously?) around the Louvre, and they eventually find a key. You know what comes next—they have to find the lock! Which leads to a safe-deposit box! In which there’s a puzzle-box thing, which contains a map! At one point very close to the beginning, Hanks gets a mysterious phone call saying, I shit you not, “You are in grave danger.” Minutes before that, his character says, “A picture is worth a thousand words… But which words?” Deep, dude.
All the while, tension is supposed to be building between the groups searching for whatever it was the scholar was hiding. And what was it? The Holy Grail. (Just like Indiana Jones 3!) But no, it isn’t as simple as that, and the movie is hell-bent on explaining in minute detail, in really long scenes, exactly what’s going on: We’ve got secretive Catholic group Opus Dei. We’ve got the Priory Of The Scion, trying to protect Jesus’ bloodline. We’ve got some mysterious characters seeking to reveal that Jesus has a bloodline, in order to bring the church down a peg or three.
With so many groups at odds with each other—and apparently willing to kill for what they believe is the right thing to do—you’d expect a little more action. But when it does come, it’s in the form of silly car chases and unbelievable jaunts through the city. It’s as if director Ron Howard felt obligated to provide the bits and pieces of a blockbuster, when all he wanted to do was put his actors on the screen and have them explain various theories about Jesus’ life and story. (For instance, he wasn’t divine. He was married to Mary Magdalene, who was pregnant when he was crucified.)
So the movie becomes a race to find the Holy Grail, which we learn from Sir Ian McKellen was actually not a cup from which Jesus drank, but the vessel into which he laid his seed, to put it nicely. That is: Mary Magdalene herself, or perhaps her sarcophagus.
Here’s some of the talky-talky talkiness that pretty much pervades this audiobook-on-film:
If this all sounds familiar, and you’re wishing Chris Rock would drop from the sky and Alanis Morissette would show up, you accidentally rented The Da Vinci Code instead of Dogma. At some point, I found myself wishing that DVC would actually attempt to be about something, and then I realized that this was a big-ass movie dealing with Christianity, and that it probably doesn’t want to offend anybody. (Unlike Dogma, which for all its problems, had a lot more fun with the whole “last scion” business.) But no, it’s pretty much all about the mystery, and Hanks isn’t even able to have a lot of fun with that. When it comes to crunch time, do you know what he says? Do you fucking know what happens when shit is on the line? I hope you can watch this very short clip.
That’s right: “I have to get to a library, fast.” What an incredible man of action. Anyway, all points naturally converge, and as anybody who was even vaguely watching up to the 90-minute point already knows, [MAJOR SPOILER] Tautou is the last scion, and McKellen is the villain. (But a fabulous, fabulous villain.)
At least McKellen has a purpose—he’s the only one who seems to. He wants to bring down the Church so all the inequity and iniquity committed in its name will be erased. But the movie doesn’t take a stand, and McKellen is led off raving like a lunatic. But still, there’s a chance to answer the question: “What if the world finds out that the greatest story ever told is a lie?”
Tautou, of course, is conveniently forced to never make the choice whether she should reveal her lineage to the world. Since the Grail itself has disappeared (and this time, really nobody knows how to find it), she has no way of providing empirical proof. What does that leave us with? How about some platitudes? My favorite: “The only thing that matters is what you believe.” (Fucking really? I believe that R. Kelly should come hang out at my house and bring hookers and champagne, then.) But this whole speech is full of them, so pick your favorite.
How much of the experience wasn’t a total waste of time? Tough question, thanks for asking. It’s hard to quantify, because it depends a lot on what you were hoping for. The movie promises adventure and excitement, but pretty much fails completely on that front. There are certainly some interesting moments, and taken alone, an albino monk assassin is pretty badass. But there’s just so much talking and eagerness and plot revelation and silly, silly puzzling that the whole thing moves like a snail. A 90-minute cut might’ve done this thing justice, and who knows, maybe Angels & Demons will remedy some of this stuff. But for now, I’m gonna say 15 minutes, or roughly 10 percent. My life wasn’t wasted, but I’d already forgotten the whole damn experience by the time I finished watching.