Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Can “The Da Vinci Code” possibly live up to its hype?

The huge box office racked up by Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” caught the attention of every studio in Hollywood, including Sony -- which seems to think it can clone that success with “The Da Vinci Code.” By reducing Gibson’s success to a formula -- religion plus controversy equals blockbuster -- they missed the point. Gibson created an intensely personal version of Christianity’s central myth for an audience of true believers. Peddling an ancient heresy as studio entertainment for an audience of disbelievers is hardly the same thing. And as source material goes, Dan Brown’s book may be a huge bestseller, but it’s certainly not the Bible.

It gets worse. The secrecy-laden rollout is a strategy based on fear, and that hardly bodes well. Using security as a pretext to pass up test screenings and advance media showings forfeits the opportunity to fine-tune the movie and build media momentum. It almost guarantees that there will be a backlash, both in mainstream media and on the internet, by people who resent the heavy-handed marketing tactics.

And then there’s the talent: Director Ron Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman last collaborated on “Cinderella Man.” They were safe choices, despite the rare achievement of creating a Russell Crowe flop, but playing it safe with this material is a recipe for disaster. And Tom Hanks is best at playing lightly comic Everyman roles. Can he carry an obscure mystery set in a conspiratorial world shrouded in darkness? It’s a stretch, even with the hair.

Finally, there’s the whole alternate history, arcane lore and conspiracy aspect. This is great material for an ongoing TV series -- “The X Files,” “Alias,” and “Lost” all being examples. But the same material that keeps fans buzzing and endlessly analyzing TV epiosodes is material that’s hard to wrap up and resolve in the dramatic confines of a 2-hour movie. The movie version of “The X Files” is just one example. On TV, you can push inconsistencies and questions off into future episodes. There’s no escape with a movie -- leaving audiences feeling let-down can lead to awful word-of-mouth and rapidly shrinking box office grosses.

Maybe the movie will surmount all these challenges, but I’d be surprised. What do you think?

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