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‘Da Vinci Code’ lacks book’s momentum

Miscast Hanks,Tautou, plus a lot of talking head scenes add up to tedium

Could Jesus and Mary Magdalene have been married? Could they have had children?

In 1988, such heretical notions could lead to fierce boycotts and condemnations, as the makers of “The Last Temptation of Christ” discovered. Even though the sex life of Jesus and Mary was clearly presented as a fantasy that takes place in Jesus’ mind just before he dies on the cross, most theater chains refused to show the picture. It found an audience only on cable and video.

Yet if you place those ideas within a best-selling thriller novel (in which they are NOT presented as a fantasy), 60 million readers will applaud, and filmmakers assume they’ll turn up en masse at the multiplex for the movie version. Such is the case with Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code,” which has been a publishing phenomenon for the past three years.

No matter what you think of Brown’s revelations about the true nature of Jesus and Mary’s relationship, the book is a page-turner. It’s the literary equivalent of the Kiefer Sutherland television series, “24,” complete with a shameless cliffhanger strategically placed before each commercial, er, chapter.

Ron Howard’s skittish movie version, written by his “Beautiful Mind” screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, is so slavishly faithful to Brown’s plot twists that it's tense with effort. A story that took 454 pages to tell simply cannot be telescoped into two and a half hours. The script is crammed with information, yet there’s very little room for humor or breathing spaces or characterizations that are more than wafer-thin.

Brown imagined his hero, Robert Langdon, a Harvard historian and symbologist, as “Harrison Ford in Harris tweed.” Indeed, the Ford of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” pursuing and protecting and believing in the Ark of the Covenant, would be perfectly cast as Langdon if he were about 10 years younger.

Instead, Howard picked Tom Hanks (star of Howard’s “Splash” and “Apollo 13”), a sharp actor who seems all wrong for the role. Granted there’s not much of a character to play, but Hanks can’t help bringing a distancing sense of irony to the frequent discussions of art and religious history.

While Langdon is required to seriously present his account of the fate of the Holy Grail, you believe Hanks only when he claims that he’s been dragged into “a world where people think this stuff is real.” He doesn’t seem to have a passion for his work.

He’s also hard to buy as an action hero who teams up with a mystery woman, Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou), to solve the murder of her grandfather — who dies in a spectacular, symbol-driven manner in the Louvre in the opening scenes.

While they’re busy solving riddles, uncovering a conspiracy and avoiding entanglements with the police, they’re also on the run because Langdon is the prime murder suspect. This touch of “Les Miserables” (with Jean Reno playing Langdon’s relentless pursuer) provides the story with most of its momentum. The pair keep getting into scrapes, escaping, then getting double-crossed.

The supporting cast provides some relief from Hanks and the equally miscast Tautou, whose English is less than secure. Paul Bettany dominates his scenes as the serial-killer monk, Silas, who tortures himself and carries out murders ordered by the Mafia-like fundamentalist Catholic group, Opus Dei. Alfred Molina is equally scary as his ruthless boss, and Jurgen Prochnow is briefly effective as a bank official who appears to be on the fugitives’ side.

Ian McKellen, who turns up about an hour into the picture, playing Grail expert Sir Leigh Teabing, seems instantly at ease with the literary dialogue. Teabing had the best lines in the book, and McKellen savors them here. The movie is most alive when Langdon and Teabing are discussing their opposing viewpoints and getting quite hot under the collar about the validity of each other’s version of Christian history.

Unfortunately, most of the other talking-heads scenes threaten to bring the movie to a halt, even when they’re supplemented by abstract, color-drained illustrations of ancient Rome or witch burnings or other phantoms of the past. As the characters discuss conspiracies and anagrams and the hidden meanings in religious art, you wonder why they don’t seem to realize they’re on the run and they don’t have a lot of time.

The phenomenal success of Brown’s novel undoubtedly has much to do with recent Catholic scandals, discoveries like the gnostic gospels and widespread disgust that the church is covering up for criminal priests. The movie may seem even harder than the book on Opus Dei, perhaps because Silas’ bloody behavior is so much more graphic on film. His murder of a devout nun is especially nasty.

Defending the film against Catholic critics, Howard has emphasized that the script is fiction, and Hanks has even distanced himself from the story by calling it “hooey.” But the mixture of fact and fiction invites confusion, especially when Brown calls The Priory of Sion (which is crucial to the story) “a real organization” that was “founded in 1099.” Biblical scholars have proven otherwise, and so did last month’s “60 Minutes,” which debunked it as a 1950s hoax.

Will the book repeat its success on film? Record-breakers in one medium don’t always cross over to another. While “Decoding Da Vinci,” “The Da Vinci Deception” and other literary spin-offs from Brown’s novel are crowding book stories, movie spin-offs have not made much of an impression. “Rape of the Soul,” a documentary that shares Brown’s fascination with hidden messages in religious art, died at the box office earlier this year.

The huge success of Brown’s book, which was published in 2003, may have had something to do with timing. His earlier novel, “Angels and Demons,” published in 2000, covered similar territory (Robert Langdon was a major character), but it did not become a great success until after the publication of “The Da Vinci Code.”

It doesn’t necessarily mean anything that “The Da Vinci Code” topped the best-seller list for so long. After all, so did “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” which bombed as a film. And “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” starring a miscast Tom Hanks.