Millions and millions and millions of people have read Dan Brown's pulpy thriller The Da Vinci Code, making the film adaptation one of the most hyped and anticipated movies of the year. Personally, I haven't read the book—too many pages, not enough pictures. And up until a week ago, I had managed to avoid finding out what the big secret of the story was. Then I saw the trailer, which gives away most of the plot, and I figured out what the big secret was. Still, I went into The Da Vinci Code with as much of an open mind as I can muster for a film that runs two and a half hours and is written by arguably the worst screenwriter in Hollywood.

Tom Hanks stars as Robert Langdon, a Harvard professor and noted symbologist. While lecturing in Paris, he is summoned to the Louvre museum, where the recently murdered body of Jacques Sauniere (Jean-Pierre Marielle) has just been discovered. Based on the cryptic clues at the scene, police detective Fache (Jean Reno) suspects Langdon is the killer. But before he slap the cuffs on the American, police cryptologist Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou) arrives on the scene to let Langdon know he is in great danger, and the two make a hasty escape, leading to a chase across France and England. As the twisting, turning plot careens along, we learn that Sauniere's murder was part of a massive conspiracy involving an ultra-conservative sect of the Catholic Church, led by Bishop Aringarosa (Alfred Molina), that is determined to keep a closely guarded secret from being revealed. The nature of the secret, and who is behind the deception and murders surrounding this centuries-long cover up, is what drives The Da Vinci Code.

It's difficult to know if fans of Brown's book will take to the film, because the big-screen adaptation raises questions of how this thing ever built a fan base in the first place. In other words, this isn't the sort of film that makes you want to go out and read the book, which suggests that either it isn't doing justice to the source material, or perhaps the source material is overhyped mediocrity not deserving of all the praise and popularity. Whatever the case, the film itself isn't exactly a good movie.

Hanks, with a bad hairstyle and looking like the bloated half-brother of Steven Seagal, is not at the top of his game. There is nothing heroic about Robert Langdon, or, for that matter, charismatic. As cinematic protagonists go, Langdon is unexceptional even within the context of his own mediocrity. Langdon makes Nicolas Cage's ridiculously stupid hero in National Treasure suddenly seem more interesting than he was. In fact, with a new stick by which to measure, the shameless Da Vinci Code ripoff National Treasure no longer seems as bad as it originally was.

Director Ron Howard infuses as much by-the-numbers style, action and special effects as one would hope to see in a big-budget movie of this nature. But the one thing missing from The Da Vinci Code—the same thing missing from many of Howard's maudlin opuses—is heart and soul. Howard has long been a Steven Spielberg wannabe, crafting films that should be entertaining or important or both, but seldom seem to deliver. If Spielberg is God in Hollywood, that makes Howard a sort of Dr. Frankenstein—someone creating soulless imitations of life. Howard knows how to put all the pieces together, but there is almost always a missing spark of divinity.

Of course, Howard's pedestrian directing skills are not fully to blame. Screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, the talentless hack who crapped out such pathetic drivel as Batman & Robin, has penned yet another sorry excuse for a screenplay. Admittedly, translating Brown's historical exposition-heavy text to film would be a challenge for anyone, but Goldsman's solution is to have long-winded dialogue-heavy sequences that further slow down a movie desperately in need of a faster pace.

After all's said and done, the biggest problem with The Da Vinci Code is not that it isn't a particularly good movie, or even that it may offend Catholics and other Christians. In fact, anything that offends the sensibilities of sanctimonious Bible-thumping blowhards who have so much insecurity in their faith that they feel a movie or book can somehow do damage to them, is actually a really good thing. No, the biggest problem with The Da Vinci Code is that it is a very forgettable film. It is only exceptional in its inability to engage and sustain an audience for a run time that needs to be about an hour shorter.

NOTE: This story published to the web on 5/18/2006.