'Da Vinci' Plays It Safe

Audrey Tautou and Tom Hanks. Credit: Columbia Pictures.

hide captionAudrey Tautou and Tom Hanks star in The Da Vinci Code.

Columbia Pictures

Film commentator Kenneth Turan talks to Renee Montagne about yesterday's premier of The Da Vinci Code at the Cannes Film Festival. He says the movie sacrifices excitement as it strives to remain true to the book.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The Cannes Film Festival opened last night with a screening of The Da Vinci Code.

The movie has been surrounded by about as much hoopla as the best-selling novel by Dan Brown that it's based on. Ron Howard directs, and Tom Hanks stars as Robert Langdon, a Harvard professor caught up in a murder investigation at the Louvre, in Paris.

Here, the professor talks to a captain in the French police about the odd placement of the body found in one of the museum's galleries.

(Soundbite of movie "The Da Vinci Code")

Mr. TOM HANKS (Actor): (As Robert Langdon) The Vitruvian Man. It's one of Leonardo Da Vinci's most famous sketches.

Mr. JEAN RENO (Actor): (As Captain Fache) And the star on his skin?

Mr. HANKS: (As Robert Langdon) A pentacle.

Mr. RENO: (As Captain Fache) And its meaning?

Mr. HANKS: (As Robert Langdon) The pentacle is a pagan religious icon.

Mr. RENO: (As Captain Fache) Devil worship.

Mr. HANKS: (As Robert Langdon) No. No, no, no, no, no. The pentacle before that. This is a symbol for Venus. It represents the female half of all...

Mr. RENO: (As Captain Fache) You're telling me that Sauniere's last act on earth was to draw a goddess symbol on his chest?

MONTAGNE: Ooh. Los Angeles Times and MORNING EDITION film critic Kenneth Turan is at the Cannes Film Festival, and he's seen The Da Vinci Code.

Ken?

Mr. KENNETH TURAN (Film Critic): Yes?

MONTAGNE: It seems like even those few who haven't read the book know a lot about the plot. How faithful is the movie to the book?

Mr. TURAN: Well, it's pretty faithful. It's as faithful as it can be. It tinkers with it at the end, it simplifies the plot a little bit. It adds some things, takes some things away. But in terms of movies being faithful to books, this is a very faithful movie.

MONTAGNE: Well, that can be a good thing and a bad thing.

Mr. TURAN: Well, it's not really a good thing in this case, actually. I mean, basically what's driving this film - it was kind of made with more of a sense of responsibility than a sense of excitement. This is a hugely popular book, and they were terrified of not getting it right, and you feel a timidity in this film. You feel a sense that what's pushing them is not to mess things up, not to kill the goose that laid the golden egg. And that kind of, that's not really a way to make a good film.

MONTAGNE: But the fact that it opened at the festival suggests that it's considered quite a big deal there.

Mr. TURAN: Oh, absolutely. I mean, the book is set, at least in part, in France. There are two major French stars. Jean Reno and Audrey Tautou have key roles in the film. And the book, you know, you walk into a bookstore here, it's like walking into a bookstore in Los Angeles. There are piles of Da Vinci Code and Da Vinci Code-related books all over the place. This has been as huge a deal here as anywhere else.

MONTAGNE: Sony Pictures waited a long time to show The Da Vinci Code to critics and journalists. The film opens here in the U.S. tomorrow. Why did it wait so long to let anyone see it? I mean, that's usually a bad sign.

Mr. TURAN: Yeah, it usually is, and it's not necessarily the reasoning here, I don't think. I mean, basically, what this book represents to the studios is that rarest of things, a pre-sold property, a thing that people see the name in the ad and they say, I read the book, I liked it, I'm going.

They didn't want to do anything to jeopardize that. They said, Well, even if critics like it, we can't add to that. And if critics don't like it and word gets out, maybe it'll hurt it. So it was kind of an attempt to be fiscally prudent.

MONTAGNE: You know, Ken, one thing about holding the film back from critics is that it seems as if all we've heard for a long time were comments about Tom Hanks' hair in the film. You've seen the film. How was his performance?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TURAN: Well, the hair is one of the most interesting things about his performance. He's kind of got a longer, more oiled kind of, it's supposed to look more dashing, but I think it doesn't go far enough. You know, Tom Hanks, this is not one of his great roles. He really, he does many things well, but this air of kind of daring romantic sophistication and kind of rakish behavior is not really something that he's good at.

And this film, for it to work efficiently, you need it to have that air of romantic kind of adventure about the lead male. And he just doesn't have it.

MONTAGNE: And what about the rest of the cast?

Mr. TURAN: Well, I liked Audrey Tautou, who plays Sophie, the woman who goes on this adventure with him. I think she's quite good. The rest of the actors, for a variety of reasons, even Ian McKellen, who's always charming, even he is not as good as he's been in the past. I mean, everyone seems to be paralyzed in this film by fear of setting a foot wrong. And again, that's not a good way to make a film.

MONTAGNE: And of course there are a lot of other movies in the festival, and we don't have that much time left to talk about them, Ken, but...

Mr. TURAN: I will return!

MONTAGNE: Tell us how much excitement there is about the rest of the festival.

Mr. TURAN: Well, the festival is just beginning today. There was a Ken Loach film this morning, there's a Pedro Almodóvar film is tomorrow morning. The festival is just gearing up.

You know, this is a huge, huge event. The population of the city triples. There are 4,000 journalists alone. There's something like 130 million euros are added to the economy because of this. So it takes awhile to get going. Once it gets going, it just kind of takes off, but right now it's just still very, very early.

MONTAGNE: Thanks Ken, and indeed, we will be checking with you next week at the end of the festival.

Mr. TURAN: Great. Well, I look forward to that.

MONTAGNE: Ken Turan is the film critic for the Los Angeles Times and for MORNING EDITION.

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