Does it really matter at this point whether the film version of Dan Brown's mystery-thriller The Da Vinci Code is any good? Religious protests, a counter-documentary, literary dissections, plagiarism lawsuits, copycat books, and above all, runaway-bestseller status have kept the novel in the limelight for years, and while the movie version is somewhere between a tedious afterthought and an inevitable cash-in, it's destined to make a mint solely by catering to non-readers' curiosity about all the fuss. And why not? It's a faithful enough adaptation that it's mostly superfluous for those who've read the book. For those who haven't, though, it's a resounding success on at least one front: It lets them entirely avoid Brown's clunky, stumbling prose and excruciating expository dialogue.
His contrived plot is another matter. Tom Hanks stars as a Harvard symbologist called in to consult when a French museum curator is found murdered in the Louvre, with a bloody pentagram scrawled on his chest and a baffling message by his side. Cryptologist Audrey Tautou promptly warns Hanks that French cop Jean Reno has pegged him as the murderer, so she and Hanks flee together, falling headlong into a quest involving anagrams, ciphers, riddles, a rogue Catholic sect, a cultish secret society, murderous albino Paul Bettany, Holy Grail enthusiast Ian McKellan, and several lessons in church "history." To keep the latter from overtaxing the blockbuster-movie crowd, screenwriter Akiva Goldsman pares them down into streamlined anecdotes, and director Ron Howard illustrates them in grandly excessive Cecil B. DeMille style, until the film's staggering budget virtually drips off the screen. Is it really necessary to add a whirlwind of CGI planets to Hanks' consideration of a sphere-based puzzle, or cut to crane shots of Greek architecture and writhing, toga-clad women when he name-checks a pagan event? No, but presumably Howard was afraid audiences would get bored of all his dimly lit reliquary interiors.
The same mentality drives the movie along at propulsive speeds, though it still feels overstuffed and overlong. Still, The Da Vinci Code isn't terrible. Brown's novel presented its concepts seriously, as food for thought; Howard's glossy version is more of a snack, designed to be taken only slightly more seriously than National Treasure, and with the much the same sense of a puzzle-based thrill ride. Ridiculous quantities of ink have been dedicated to the question of whether Code's conclusions are meaningful, or, as Hanks recently put it, "hooey." In Howard's hands, they're neither; they're a set of super-slick Cliffs Notes, suitable for skimming and instantly forgetting.