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Time for tea? (l-r) Hanks and Tautou in The Da Vinci Code.

Like a Dull Sermon

By Laura Leon

The Da Vinci Code

Directed by Ron Howard

I hate it when somebody does a cover of a song, only to perform it exactly the way the original singer did, like karaoke only taken to a different level. I mean, what’s the point? Where’s the stamp of individuality? I had the same reaction—disgust—when watching The Da Vinci Code. Director Ron Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman breathe absolutely nothing new into the cinematic adaptation of the Dan Brown megahit. The end result is a careful (so as not to offend fans? the church? academics?) staging that’s more Power Point presentation than work of art or entertainment.

Let’s make one thing clear: The book was not great literature, as clunky sentences and clichés abounded. What did work was the sense of solving the story’s central mystery alongside symbologist Robert Langdon (in the movie, Tom Hanks) and French cryptologist Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou). Clues, in the form of anagrams and puzzles, were embedded within historical paintings. It was a brilliant way to lure readers—that, and the conspiracy theory of the central mystery. Without ruining it for the uninitiated, let’s just say it involves the relationship of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene. (Separately, but even more shockingly, it refigures the very bedrock of Christianity.)

The story begins with the murder of museum curate Jacques Sauniére (Jean-Pierre Marielle), who extends his last moments on earth in a very impressive, Olympian quest to leave lots of clues, in quasi-invisible ink, throughout the Louvre. (Didn’t this guy have a cell phone?) His last words, written in his own blood, lead to the questioning of Langdon, conveniently in town for a lecture, and to Langdon’s teaming up with Sophie. Obviously, Sauniére trusted that their respective talents combined would lead to enlightenment, instead of the turgid question and answer sessions that we get. “How can this be possible?” asks Sophie, to which Robert intones, “It’s not impossible.”

Howard and his crew treat all of this with kid gloves, fearful apparently of imprinting anything original or interesting onto it. They’re dogged in their perceived duty to spell it all out for us, whether or not we’ve read the book; the filmmakers seem bound to pause every few minutes or so to let the slower ones catch up. Trouble is, we’re way ahead of the proceedings, so watching Langdon and Neveu pause in the middle of a life-and-death chase to spend long moments discussing key points in Religion Lite Theory is agonizing.

For the first time, Hanks neither annoys or intrigues me. Here, he is the object of my compassion, as he looks hopelessly adrift, a man without a well-written part, an actor forced to play teacher.

Pursuing our talky protagonists are police inspector Fache (Jean Reno), himself a member of a conservative Catholic sect called Opus Dei, and Silas (Paul Bettany), an albino killing ma chine who just happens to be a self- flagellating monk. Would that Howard could have treated Silas’ daily self-inflicted penances with subtlety. But no, he goes the slasher-film route. As a result, Silas’ murders for the good of the cause come off as less deadly than his flagellation. This defangs him, and he comes off as just creepy.

There’s also a determined bishop (Alfred Molina) and an English grail seeker, Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellan). The scenes in which Teabing painstakingly explains the mystery of the grail bring the proceedings to an utter standstill again. Aren’t these people in grave danger? Why are they chatting over tea?

The haunting lack of urgency mummifies what should have been a convincing game of cat and mouse. National Treasure, an enjoyable yarn from 2004, dealt with another age-old mystery, but did so with panache and respect for its audience. As its trio of treasure hunters worked their way through that mystery, we were in on the action. We bought that the protagonists were in fear for their lives, and, surprisingly, we bought into the central facts of the mystery. Whatever side you may be on with respect to the “who done what with whom” of The Da Vinci Code, the filmmakers do a disservice to all with their tepid and plodding storytelling.

A Tradition of Oppression

Water

Directed by Deepa Mehta

Director Deepa Mehta’s Water has been a long time in the making. In 2000, original production was disrupted by Hindu fundamentalists who, apparently, objected to the film’s sympathetic portrayal of Hindu widows and to the movie’s implicit call for reform. The protestors had the support of the Indian authorities, and ultimately the shoot had to be relocated to Sri Lanka. Filmmakers—including George Lucas, who took out a full-page ad in Variety—rallied around Mehta, spurring her on to complete the film. So, the film gets the tags “brave” and “important” for its director’s dedication to an ostensibly oppressed community of women. Fair enough. But is it any good? Well . . .

Water is set in 1938 India, a country troubled both by the colonial presence of the English and by a rigid traditional caste system. Among those designated “untouchable” by that caste system are widows, who by tradition must either kill themselves after their husband’s death or seclude themselves and never remarry (they may, we’re told, marry their husband’s youngest brother with permission of the family, but that doesn’t come up in this storyline). We follow one such widow, the 7-year-old Chuyia (Sarala), into the ashram where she is intended to live for the rest of her life with other Hindu women who have outlived their spouses. There, the spirited girl meets a cast of “aunties,” including the gruff and bullying Madhumati (Manorama), the protective and motherly Shakuntala (Seema Biswas) and the sisterly and drop-dead gorgeous Kalyani (Lisa Ray).

As one might expect, Chuyia becomes a kind of agent provocateur among the widows, her childish high spirits eliciting responses and revelations from the women that illustrate the varied ways individuals respond to oppression: opportunism, quiet suffering, romantic longing, etc. The acting is subtle and natural, though the characters are mostly merely convenient. By the time the tragic love story kicks in, the viewer knows pretty well how everyone will react and how things will end.

That predictability isn’t necessarily a fault in a tragedy (Mehta even tips her hand knowingly with some overt Shakespearean references). But once you’ve figured out where things are going, you naturally look at the bigger picture to contextualize the characters’ fates; and that’s where Water confounds. On the one hand, Mehta seems to be presenting the story as a poingnant flashback to the dark days just prior to liberation, for both one of the widows and for India. (No spoiler here, but Gandhi plays a role in both.) On the other, as she makes clear with a some final text about the continuing plight of Indian widows, she seems to intend it as a current call to action or a public-service announcement. It’s a bit disorienting. Like coming out of a production of Romeo & Juliet to be given a pamphlet titled “The Dangers of Petting.”

—John Rodat

Pests, Uncontrolled

Over the Hedge

Directed by Tim Johnson and Karey Kirkpatrick

Most kids will probably enjoy this latest CGI animated feature from DreamWorks (Shrek, Madagascar). If you’re over 13, however, you should probably bring something to help pass the time. Personally, I’d suggest getting through the film’s 86 minutes by sawing your own head off with a soft-bristled toothbrush. This would be more pleasant (and useful) than enduring Over the Hedge.

The story is simple: A group of animals—a skunk, possums, a turtle, porcupines and an extremely wired squirrel—awake from their winter-long nap to discover that most of their forest has been leveled and replaced with a cookie-cutter-bland suburban development. Enter raccoon RJ (voiced by Bruce Willis), who offers to be their guide to obtaining food from the plentiful and pesky humans now in their midst. We already know, however, that the nefarious RJ has an agenda that doesn’t include genuinely helping his newfound pals.

Whatever. Over the Hedge just doesn’t make you care about its critters. The animation is fine; as a colleague pointed out, the hair texture and movement is particularly impressive. But the characters, as written, are less than clichés; most of the jokes are of the usual fart-based variety; and the Brian Wilson-esque songs by Ben Folds (!) are barely negligible. Even more jarring is the voice casting: You don’t need to know that the role of RJ was written for Jim Carrey to realize that the monotone-voiced Willis is horribly miscast. (Only Eugene Levy and Steve Carell make an impression.)

The film limps from boring scene to tedious montage and back again until the surprisingly entertaining climax, which involves giving the hyper squirrel (a perfectly manic Carell) an energy drink and turning him loose on the villains. Too little, too late, though.

—Shawn Stone


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