Code Breaker

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BOOKS AND ARTS NOVEMBER 28, 2006

Code Breaker

<?xml:namespace prefix = dsl /> A few minutes after 4 p.m., Jack Bauer is summoned from his office at the Los Angeles branch of the Counter Terrorism Unit to investigate the murder of a curator at the Getty Museum. The man's body has been horribly deformed by contamination with an unknown virus, but before dying he was able to use one of his open pustules to paint a series of coded phrases on the museum floor. Jack cracks the code by consulting Van Gogh's painting Irises, and discovers that the virus derives from a legendary flower-based compound last used against the Cathars during the Albigensian Crusade. Jack traces the compound to a rogue operation being run out of the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, using evidence he acquired by torturing an albino assassin sent after him by an overzealous undersecretary for ecumenical affairs. It's now 6 a.m. the next morning and Jack, accompanied by a pretty biologist from the Centers for Disease Control and a grandfatherly ex-spook (who may or may not be what he seems), is on a private jet headed for Washington, DC. Unless he can get to the bottom of the conspiracy by afternoon, millions of innocent Americans will die horribly in a Biblical plague. Blip blip blip ... .

If only. Joel Surnow, the creator of "24," reportedly tried to acquire the rights to The Da Vinci Code to serve as the plot for the show's third season. Of course, there aren't enough advertiser dollars in the universe to get the bestselling novel of all time to settle for network television treatment. But it's a shame, because despite the obvious challenges of adapting a medieval theological conspiracy to a show about contemporary counterterrorism, "24" has a mood that would have well suited The Da Vinci Code--shamelessly pulpy, compulsively entertaining, and far more interested in heedless forward motion than in having anything remotely thoughtful to say. (Not that that's stopped both right and left from trying to appropriate the "message" of "24.")


Instead, we got a Major Motion Picture directed by Ron Howard, perhaps the single director least likely to rescue this material from itself. The novel, despite some truly appalling prose on the part of author Dan Brown, works pretty well as a potboiler: The pages go by quickly (though there are far too many of them), and the constant riddles and reversals are diverting enough if one doesn't contemplate them too closely. The problem is that this resolutely silly book actually takes itself rather seriously--and, worse, somehow managed to persuade millions of people who ought to have known better to do the same.


Enter Howard who, with a couple of notable exceptions (the 1982 "Little Opie Cunningham" sketch from SNL, the too-marvelous-not-to- be-cancelled "Arrested Development"), has devoted his adult life to making Frank Capra look like an ironist. The word "earnest" is not itself earnest enough to convey the earnestness of Howard's filmmaking. That this would be a problem was evident even before The Da Vinci Code began shooting, when Howard let it be known that he would try to alter the story to make it less offensive to Catholics. The idea itself was preposterous: This is, after all, a book whose entire premise is that there is a millennia-old conspiracy by the Catholic Church to hide the truth about Jesus' marriage to Mary Magdalene and thereby oppress women. (Not to mention the numerous murders committed by Church agents through the course of the story.) Moreover, Howard's eagerness to understand and mitigate the concerns of those whom his film might offend essentially meant embracing the moral gravity of a project that shouldn't have any moral gravity.


Howard's alterations were generally minor: The hero, Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), who in the book is a great enthusiast of the Magdalene conspiracy theory, is in the film something of a skeptic. Of course, this is really a second-tier issue given that, regardless of the extent to which Langdon believes in the conspiracy, it turns out to be true. Howard also tones down Brown's insistence in the non-divinity of Christ, suggesting that he might have been both the Son of God and the husband of Mary. (Sadly, the film offers no speculation on what kind of father-in-law the Almighty might make.) There are a smattering of smaller tinkers, as well: In an apparent effort to assuage the albino anti-defamation lobby, Silas the killer monk (Paul Bettany) is implicitly rendered as a non-albino (albeit one with white hair and skin), his "frightening, disembodied" red eyes replaced by Bettany's own Aqua Velva blues.


In the end, though, the primary impact of Howard's alterations is to make an already absurdly self-important project even more so. The high-mindedness of his theological compromises is almost enough to make one nostalgic for the fierce, if idiotic, anti-clericalism of the novel. The result is a tepid, ponderous movie that behaves as if it has something important to say but is too nervous to tell us what it is. No one in the cast seems to have much idea what the point of the film is (beyond making a billion dollars, of course), so they wander aimlessly through the proceedings. Hanks's performance as a superstar symbologist (who knew there was such a thing?) is far less interesting than his hairdo, which would not be out of place on someone who cooks muskrat for dinner. As policewoman/cryptologist Sophie Neveu, the radiant Audrey Tautou glows at about 40 watts, well shy of her usual 100. And Jean Reno and Alfred Molina seem almost embarrassed at the obviousness of their casting as a French policeman and scheming Opus Dei bishop, respectively. A partial exception to the mass listlessness is Sir Ian McKellan, who brings a hint of randy old goat to the role of conspiracy historian Leigh Teabing. (Minus, of course, any actual randiness, which would be unseemly in so noble an endeavor as this: When he informs Robert and Sophie that, by bringing him along on their adventure, they've given him "the best night of his life," one feels something akin to pity.)


I somehow managed to miss The Da Vinci Code when it was in theatres (I'm sure I must've been very, very busy), and my first exposure to the film actually took place in my local video store. As I was perusing the shelves, I overheard snatches of dialogue from the (unseen) movie playing on the store television--something about a murky, diabolical conspiracy that had changed the course of human history. Perhaps mis-hearing "Sion" as "Cylon," I thought for a moment it might be an episode of "Battlestar Galactica." In any case, it sounded like a fun, clever B-grade entertainment about science fiction or the occult. It was, of course, none of those things.


But all hope is not lost. Brian Grazer, who produced The Da Vinci Code, is also one of the executive producers of "24." And if there's anything for which Hollywood has shown considerable enthusiasm, it's the repackaging of proven moneymakers. Someday, perhaps, Jack Bauer will get his shot at cracking "The Van Gogh Cipher." If nothing else, at least his hair will be less distracting.


The Home Movies List: Adaptable




The Third Man (1949). One of the greatest alterations in cinematic history created one of the greatest endings. In Graham Greene's original treatment, the last scene has Anna and Holly (actually, "Rollo" in Greene's telling, another mistake) walking off together. Director Carol Reed won a fight with both Greene and producer David O. Selznick for his crueler, more beautiful conclusion. And thank goodness. The Name of the Rose (1986). Jean-Jacques Annaud's adaptation of the Umberto Eco bestseller wisely downplayed the theology and concentrated on the detective story. The problem for The Da Vinci Code is that, apart from the riddles and pseudo-revelations, there really isn't any story. (Also, though it's become a clich? to describe Eco's subsequent book, Foucault's Pendulum, as a smarter Da Vinci Code, it is in fact true. The 1988 novel begins where Brown's book ends, with the Magdalene coverup, before spinning out into a variety of ever more outlandish conspiracies. Though exponentially more erudite than The Da Vinci Code, the novel takes itself less seriously and concludes with a far subtler observation: that people will go to remarkable lengths even for those conspiracies that turn out not to be true.)L.A. Confidential (1997). The screenplay, by Brian Helgeland and director Curtis Hanson, is a masterpiece of compression, lopping off half a dozen or so of the manic subplots of the James Ellroy novel--a child-murdering serial killer, a partnership between Exley's (still living) father and a character based on Walt Disney, etc. If only Helgeland and Hanson had come up with a more compelling finish than the shootout at the Victory Motel....Out of Sight (1998). If L.A. Confidential is a case study in subtraction, Out of Sight demonstrates the virtue of careful addition--in this case, a final scene tacked onto the original Elmore Leonard story that brilliant finesses its downbeat ending. The result is one of the most underrated films of the 1990s and still the best performance to date by just re-throned "Sexiest Man Alive" George Clooney.Layer Cake (2004). Those who are eager for another helping of the rough-hewn charisma of new Bond Daniel Craig (or who are waiting for Casino Royale to arrive on video) can find him in this Guy Ritchie-esque gangster flick. But be forewarned: Though Craig is good, this is a plot that could have used the Helgeland-Hanson treatment. The initial screenplay, adapted by J.J. Connolly from his own novel, ran to over 400 pages--or long enough for a six-plus-hour film. Even in 105-minute final cut, a number of clumsily amputated subplots still wave like phantom limbs.


Christopher Orr is a senior editor at The New Republic.

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