Brace Yourselves! Holy Grail Is…

What’s wrong with The Da Vinci Code can be summed up in one word: everything!

Catholics scream “Heresy!” Methodists yawn. Jews roll their eyes and pass the matzo. And assorted monks, nuns, priests and albinos threaten boycotts on behalf of everyone else. Meanwhile, there’s a much more important reason to avoid this noisy and ludicrous armed conflict between Hollywood and the Catholic Church—two industries that each know a lot about marketing strategies for power and profit. That reason is simple: The Da Vinci Code is a waste of $125 million on two and a half punishing hours of paralyzing liturgical twaddle that is a challenge to sit through without snoring. Heretics, zealots and movie buffs beware: Bring NoDoz.

Director Ron Howard, gruffly responding to his detractors in the press in general and to the opening-night audience that booed the film in Cannes in particular, said, “This is supposed to be entertainment, not theology.” It is neither. Lurid, confusingly jammed with irritating psychobabble and not a bit of fun, it’s an artifact without art.

I didn’t read Dan Brown’s pulpy best-seller, and now I know why: The plot of this preposterous religious detective thriller—the Bible is a hoax, Jesus and the prostitute Mary Magdalene secretly married and bore children, their descendants all ended up for some inexplicable reason in France, and the truth remains locked away for centuries in the Holy Grail, which may or may not be hidden away somewhere near the Ritz Hotel in Paris—is silly enough on film. I can’t imagine the torture of reading it. (The one saving grace: The movie is shorter than the book, but even that may be a delusion.) Deprived of the kind of action that keeps you alert, devoid of the most elementary suspense, performed by an overpaid cast that looks jet-lagged and badly in need of barf bags, and crammed with endlessly execrable dialogue, this film has aroused anger and controversy that isn’t worth the sweat.

Assuming that everyone is as tired of reading about The Da Vinci Code as I am of writing about it, I’ll reduce the plot, like a sauce: The curator of the Louvre is gunned down by a wacko albino monk (creepy Paul Bettany), an angel of death from a secret Catholic cult called Opus Dei who strips naked, flagellates his body with five-tailed whips and wears a spiked chain called a “cilice” around his bleeding thighs. This guy is a sick sister from another planet, but he talks to the Vatican on a cell phone and drags around weapons of mass destruction they never heard about in Baghdad. The purpose of Opus Dei is to find and wipe out all evidence that the “greatest story ever told” was really “the greatest lie ever told”—evidence that has been buried for 2,000 years in the Holy Grail. Yes, we are talking that Holy Grail, which was more fun when the lunatic Monty Python knights hunted it down in Spamalot.

Although they often get lost in the shuffle, the movie also features two main characters: a Harvard professor of symbology (Tom Hanks, with a bad hair day left over from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band) and a police cryptologist (Audrey Tautou, shedding her gamine Leslie Caron image), who is the last living descendant of Jesus. (Her sex appeal has prompted one wag to insist that she must be from Mary Magdalene’s side of the family.) The rest of this interminable ordeal follows them as they gamely but lamely piece together pieces of the puzzle in their search for the Holy Grail, following clues in Leonardo Da Vinci’s art. As Ms. Tautou cracks the arcane anagrams and Mr. Hanks bores us all to death trying vainly to explain them, we learn all kinds of ecumenical mumbo-jumbo. Brace yourselves: The Holy Grail is really a vagina, and the disciple next to Jesus in the Last Supper was actually a girl!

Leading a long, dull chase from the Louvre to Westminster Abbey, with a stop for fireworks and swordplay at the chateau of a loony old billionaire Holy Grail freak (Sir Ian McKellen, who steals the show), Ms. Tautou and Mr. Hanks are pursued by a French cop (Jean Reno), a homicidal bishop (Alfred Molina) and that slobbering S&M monk, flogging himself like a witch dancing around a bonfire while we get laboriously instructed in the history of the Catholic empire, replete with flashbacks to pagan Romans partying madly, the conversion of Constantine, Mary Magdalene giving birth, and the Council of Nicaea, where Jesus is upgraded to the status of a deity in 325 A.D. by Hollywood extras in loin cloths and togas from a Maria Montez movie. Everything is so ponderous I found myself grateful for the occasional invasions of hilarious bad taste.

Baggy-eyed and expressionless, Mr. Hanks looks ossified. Ms. Tautou is a beauty, but she has no range and her English is so convoluted that many of her scenes drift by in a mist of incoherence. They both look dazed, rambling through chunks of history and armies of crusading ghosts like baffled students on a Gothic tour of the great priories of England. There isn’t a shred of chemistry between them. For a movie that prides itself on piling on the pious information and making it sound convincing, the verbose script by Akiva Goldsman includes a parade of zingers: “I don’t follow!” “That’s an old wives’ tale!” And, finally, “I’m glad this bullshit is over!” Amen, chum, and a flying novena to that. After the sale of 60 million books, surely it’s no secret that Tom Hanks cuts himself while shaving, follows an arrow of blood in the bathroom sink, and at last discovers the resting place of the Holy Grail. When you find out where, you will laugh out loud.

I don’t know enough about mythical theology or organized religion to vouch for the ecumenical proof of a 2,000-year-old Catholic conspiracy to pull our legs and protect the church’s power by hiding the roots of Christianity, but I do know something about bad movies, and The Da Vinci Code is a real stinker.

Cliffhangers

For thrillers that thrill, I prefer the noirish French film Lemming, a psychological twister by Dominik Moll, who directed the enormously satisfying 2000 surprise With a Friend Like Harry. It has a lot of the same broad-daylight suspense and disturbing elements of hair-raising horror happening to nice people in seemingly normal circumstances. Laurent Lucas, the handsome actor who played the husband whose life was turned upside down in Harry, and who looks uncannily like the young Montgomery Clift (before the accident that altered his face and career), again stars as Alain Getty, a brilliant engineer who designs Webcam-operated home-improvement devices. At the office, his job is to make sure everything is always under control. At home, his seemingly perfect marriage to his loving and devoted wife, Bénédicte (Charlotte Gainsbourg), is on equally sound footing.

After a job transfer to a new town in the South of France, they invite his new boss, Richard Pollock (André Dussollier), and his wife Alice (Charlotte Rampling) to dinner. The older couple turns out to be the same kind of intruders from hell as the Machiavellian title character in With a Friend Like Harry. Bitter, mean-spirited and bored, Alice tries to seduce Alain, then drops by uninvited to apologize, locks herself in the guest room and commits suicide. To make matters worse, a small and mysterious rodent (one of those lemmings who follow each other to the sea to die) is caught in the kitchen drain, stopping up the plumbing. Paramedics come and go, Bénédicte takes on the antisocial persona of the dead Alice and disappears for days, the neighbors turn bizarre, and the more Alain tries to unblock the pipes and restore order, the more his own sense of control falls apart.

The pandemonium decimates all their lives, but with the interwoven plots of ghosts, identity transfers, infidelity and death, you’re never quite sure whether anything is real or imagined. The narrative surrealism can be annoying, but it’s never less than riveting, and the acting is superb. (Wan and bloodless, Ms. Rampling’s study in terminal depression is stunning.) Mr. Moll is a master at peeling away the French designer bandages that mask the scars of the diseased bourgeoisie. The result suggests David Lynch with escargot.

Music Notes

Into my mailbox from the elegant saloon pianist Peter Mintun comes a correction of my review of singer Mary Cleere Haran at the Carlyle: “A thousand fans have probably written or called to remind you of something you already knew, that Frank Loesser (not Hoagy Carmichael) wrote the words and music to ‘Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year.’” I blush with apology, because I actually did know that. While I was writing my review, Hoagy’s immortal “I Get Along Without You Very Well” was playing in the background, hence the confusion. (I have always mixed up those two songs, I’m sorry to confess.) I’m grateful that Mr. Mintun also reminds me that the endangered murals in the Café Carlyle were designed by the noted Hungarian artist Marcel Vertes, not the legendary Ludwig Bemelmans. Bad error, but still better than the crass new owners of the Carlyle, who refer to the historic décor as “wallpaper.”

Finally, it is with great regret that space limitations in last week’s issue forced my review of the delectable Broadway soprano Rebecca Luker onto the editing-room floor. At Feinstein’s at the Regency, she was both fabulous to hear and lovely to look at, like the frisky blondes in the old Busby Berkeley movies. Celebrating women songwriters, she moved gracefully from classic love songs by Dorothy Fields, Carolyn Leigh and Marilyn Bergman to wrist-slashers from what I grumpily call the “Janis Ian syndrome,” but on songs of cheer or songs of angst, the voice was mellifluous, the chops impressive and the smile radiant. Never resorting to noisy belting to get your attention, this Alabama-born Scarlett O’Hara knows the value of trusting a lyric and letting the songs work for her, and she’s an accomplished actress too. Which explains the depth she pours into a profound new tune entitled “Lovely Lies,” about Southern belles raised on church hymns and pecan pie, with no preparation for independent thinking or real life on the other side of the plantation. Playing Magnolia on a big Broadway stage in Show Boat or dreamily crooning a sexy tune in the intimacy of a hotel cabaret, Rebecca Luker turns songs into three-act plays and makes the center spot burn brighter. I hope she comes back soon.