I haven’t read The Da Vinci Code, but I have read a lot of Nerve.com/Salon.com profiles of women who have. Apparently they liked it a lot. It’s curious how consistently the curve of reading material ascends among the Last Great Book You Read on these profiles. In rising sophistication, the women of Nerve/Salon are down with Da Vinci, David Sedaris, Middlesex… Deleuze(!) While I can’t draw any meaningful cultural conclusions from the quantum leap indicated herein, I have managed to figure out The Da Vinci Code.
As I understand it, The Da Vinci Code addresses issues of history, theology, philosophy and religion on approximately the same level of profundity & complexity as the question: Would America have beaten Hitler faster if we had Superman? This is, as the years have taught us, about the routine level of inquiry for summer blockbusters.
The Da Vinci Code’s plotline is pretty straightforward. Since around the time that the organizing Catholic Church suppressed the Coptics, the Church has asserted that Jesus, in all his manifestations, was a Ford man. He drove, as every good Catholic knows, F-350 pickups and a ’65 Mustang. Jesus, the Church has maintained for over two millennia, had an affinity for the small-block 323 and always wanted a Shelby Cobra, but His dad wouldn’t let him have one. Imagine the Church’s surprise and horror then, when The Code unearthed proof that in fact, Jesus drove Chevvies! And not only that Jesus preferred the ’66 Chevelle SS 396, but also that He utilized after-market high-performance add-ons from third-party manufacturers, Holly cams and Webber carbs foremost. Heretofore suppressed transcripts of the Sermon on the Mount have been discovered, in which Jesus apparently said: “Blessed are the Meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Especially those Meek motherfuckers who run Mopar, because on Sunday (Sunday, SUNDAY–AY-AY) at Bethlehem Raceway, they’re all going to inherit My dust!”
Naturally, the Church has a secret society determined to prevent the news of Jesus’ preference for GM from reaching the faithful. As Tom Hanks says in a variety of deeply concerned tones, such a discovery would rock the Church to its very foundations. Since my understanding of Catholic doctrine is limited to what I picked up from Keanu Reeves in Constantine, it’s not clear to me why this would be such a shocker, but I sure would like to know where Tom Hanks got that bitchin’ haircut…It’s a European sophisto/intellectual’s semi-mullet and is really distracting. It’s the best movie-star haircut I’ve seen in years. Rather, it’s the first movie-star haircut I’ve noticed in years. I fear an epidemic of mall-guys in Hanks’ demo down at the local Supercuts clamoring for it. I spent the first half of the film trying to determine if it was a weave, and then gave up. If studios had the technology to hair over Bruce Willis’ bald spot as far back as Hudson Hawk, then clearly the origins of Hanks’ flowing locks are beyond the ken of mortal man.
And speaking of Hudson Hawk, didn’t that underrated anarchy cover this same plotline with a good deal more verve and less Jesus? As soon as Hanks started declaiming about Leonardo and some plummy-voice foreigner launches a deconstruction of The Last Supper, I expected Sandra Bernhard. The long, detailed, and in fairness, entertaining lecture made me think that any minute the foreigner was going to hold up a copy of Robert Graves’ The White Goddess. It’s a public service to remind the summer blockbuster audience that there is such a thing as a feminine principle. Hanks (long hair ‘n all) plays so neutered that issues of gender don’t crop up much in his pictures. The time spent on the lecture makes it clear the screenplay is more concerned with including touchstone clue-sequences (to satisfy the readers of the book) than adding up those sequences to anything that remotely makes sense.
But who cares about that? Ronin, another quest/clue movie filled with French character actors and a nice castle or two, didn’t make a lot of sense and it’s one of my favorites. And, like Da Vinci, it co-stars ol’ reliable Jean Reno, who did as fine a job of losing his tough-guy-credibility-reducing paunch as Hanks did losing his. And I guess he had reason to lose it—was there any other choice for the role? If your movie has a lot of French stuff in it, you need to find French actors that American audiences already recognize, however vaguely. Thus explaining this film’s Sandra Bernhard, Audrey Tautou. She’s clearly matured as an actress. After several star turns spent channeling Minnie Mouse, she’s worked her way up to channeling Juliette Binoche. That is to say, she spends the entirety of Da Vinci with her lips tightly compressed looking totally pissed off (in a suppressed but knowing French sort of way) and vaguely resentful about something. I’m not sure Tautou smiles once in two and a half hours, but that might be because Hanks gets all the close-ups and her role consists mainly of yelling: ‘Look out!’ and opening her Minnie Mouse eyes really wide. The story is dishearteningly lacking in lust, so all we see of Tautou is her lovely shins peeking out of the chaste, nuns-length skirts she prefers. Maybe she’ll start taking off her clothes when she matures further as a thespian, and channels Isabelle Huppert.
As for the let’s-bring-a-bit-of-English-eccentricity to liven up this endless conversation punctuated by car chases, Ian McKellen appears, once more, in the John Hurt role. Because Hurt actually possesses gravitas, he lends some to his performances. McKellen, who alternates between hero and villain, comes off only as playful and, of course, smarter than you or me. I’m sure most of the audience were wondering, as I was, when McKellen was going to bring in Frodo to save the day.
However smart McKellen appears to be, he’s still dumber than Hanks, who’s identified to us as a ‘Professor of Symbology.’ If memory serves, Bullwinkle appeared as one of those in that episode about the exploding cheese. Hanks has a bit of Bullwinkle’s gravitas himself, never for a moment betraying that he has no idea what he’s talking about. This is a movie where the smart guy beats all the other guys by being smart. Not something you see very often, and certainly not in summer blockbusters. It’s a welcome concept. And it’s nice to take a little trip to Paris, though last week’s episode of The Sopranos shot the place a bit more lyrically.
No matter what you’ve heard, by summer blockbuster standards, Da Vinci doesn’t really suck all that hard. At least not til the last half hour when, as required by statute, all summer blockbusters turn to incomprehensible nonsense. Here the nonsense takes the form of a five-minute film-closing ass-kissing apology to JAY-zuss! and all those who might have been offended by the previous two hours of unrelenting blasphemy. Tendentious, predictable and inescapable as that apology may be, it’s nice that the final sequence suggests that Hanks and McKellen may be smart, but I. M. Pei was smarter still.
ContributorDavid N. Meyer
David N. Meyer's Spring Semester cinema studies course at The New School begins January 26, The Desperate Horizon: Road Movies, Westerns, and the American Landscape.