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.)