Churchgoers, with the Vatican's okey-dokey, are hissing The Da Vinci Code as if Ron Howard's film adaptation of Dan Brown's ultra-successful, ultra-sophomoric page-turner were a pagan salvo aimed at the kneecaps of Christianity. What's at stake? Nothing less than the religion's "very foundations," intones Ian McKellen, so the media machinery has been accordingly revved up -- "blasphemy" is cried all over, a canny reprise of the controversy-marketing that's made Brown's jejune hooey-fest a creed of its own to gazillions of readers, not to mention its publishers. So here's the deal: Following the most uncinematic of after-hours chases, an old curator's body is found in the Louvre, arranged like Da Vinci's Uomo Vitruviano and smeared with bloody clues. "So dark the con of man"? Tom Hanks's in town, the world's leading (only?) symbologist, lecturing on signifiers as the language for understanding cultural history; Jean Reno as Le Commissaire pulls him off the book-signing gig for a few questions, since the jet-lagged, lank-haired American is the main suspect in the slaughter. Cryptology officer Audrey Tautou springs him, and off they go to decipher the trail of crumbs, with both the authorities and an albino self-flagellator (Paul Bettany, not nearly as creepy as the smug voice of reason in Dogville) in hot pursuit. The pasty monk behind them, murmuring in Latin while bashing faces, is a lackey of the Opus Dei, a "consul of shadows" determined at all costs to keep the cover-up of the ages from being revealed.
Enter Sir Ian, hobbling on canes as a fruity academic with exposition to burn. Turns out the monumental sleuthing by Team Gump-Amélie leads to the Holy Grail, not the one sought by John Cleese and Eric Idle, but a whopper of a What-if -- What if Jesus and Mary Magdalene were chummier than the Bible cares to acknowledge, resulting in a long bloodline that's been kept hidden throughout history? Humanity and divinity, doubt and faith: Surely themes right up Opie's alley. Nuns get whacked, the Crusades are uncloaked as the medieval equivalent of the current Middle East sham, and Da Vinci's The Last Supper hints at the human roots of Jesus, yet Howard and scriptwriter Akiva Goldsman, his usual partner-in-idiocy, are so afraid of offending ticket-buyers that any potential provocation ends in a lukewarm puddle. Weird how a supposedly heretic text gets a much more reverential treatment than most Holy Book adaptations, but inert "respectability" for the masses (and the Academy) is all the director can dole out since his laughable A Beautiful Mind -- indeed, flurries of CGI clutter up the screen much like John Nash's schizophrenic visions, illustrating not how humankind's past and present embody the same breathing space, but rather how Howard's fuzziness extends from the spiritual to the aesthetic. The Da Vinci Code is in the end too meekly middlebrow to really affront: As a not-quite-fallen Catholic who believes in God as much as he deplores the Church's patriarchal grip, I was more offended by Howard's passionless murkiness than by any suggestions of dirt on Jesus. In cinema, turning celluloid into concrete is the most sacrilegious of sins.
To many a fanboy no less a sacred text, Marvel's X-Men graphic novel gets its own defacing in X-Men: The Last Stand. Returning for more queeny Vincent Pricing, McKellen is bad-mutant Magneto, reunited with good-mutant Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) for an opening of high (unintentional) hilarity, the wrinkles from the two British glazed hams digitally smoothed out for the risible prologue. They visit young Jean Grey, who was snuffed out in the previous chapter, but never say never in Hollywood's magic world of sequels -- Famke Janssen is revived soon enough, her Jean Grey now the hot-to-trot Phoenix, with limitless powers yet unable to match the acting vigor of her throbbing forehead vein. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Storm (Halle Berry) are professors at Xavier's benign mutant-sanctuary, which has finally turned into Hogwart's School for Wizards, if I may mix my soulless franchises. Actually, despite my chronic allergy to comic-book flicks, I rather liked the earlier X-Men films, elegantly heightened and darkly poetic fables of alienation, filled with sardonic acrobatics and queer-subtext. With original helmer Bryan Singer off to other superhero regions, however, a new director was needed -- how about Brett Ratner, a studio stooge without a single striking image in him? Make no mistake: this is the series' Red Dragon, assembled in the hack-laboratory with every ounce of resonance carefully scrubbed out.
And resonance is here to be mined, if only Ratner cared. The government's come up with a President-approved serum to suppress the mutant X-gene -- "They're calling it a cure," sighs blue-haired Beast (Kelsey Grammer), first illustrated by dissolving Mystique's fetchingly scaly bod until only a naked Rebecca Romijn is left on the ground. The outsiders don't appreciate being bullied into the humans' notion of "normalcy," so new recruits arrive for both sides of the mutant community: Kitty (Ellen Page) and Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) in Prof. X's corner, Callisto (Dania Ramirez) and Juggernaut (Vinnie Jones) in Magneto's, and everybody together for a bit of clunkily choreographed tumult at the Alcatraz melee that provides a climax of sorts. Much mumbling about the inner beast that can't be caged, plus the Golden Gate Bridge is at one point levitated, but, as with The Da Vinci Code, nothing really feels at stake other than box-office opening-weekend numbers. As befits the Ratner Touch, the cast, much of it vivid in the other installments, is oafish here -- Jackman goes from young Clint Eastwood to total lox, while Anna Paquin, whose sulking Rogue often seemed like a character out of The Fury, displays only one superpower, the ability to blend into the wallpaper. However, the director's own superpowers remain impressive in their anti-art integrity, shape-shifting from Money Talks to Rush Hour to After the Sunset and beyond. Forget the X-gene serum: for sure personality-repression, just inject a dose of Ratner into any idiosyncratic series. Mediocrity guaranteed, or your money back.
Even the animated furries of Over the Hedge look edgy compared to the freshly neutered mutants, though it's basically a choice between toxins -- Hugh Jackman channeling Arnie ("Class dismissed") versus Garry Shandling channeling himself as a nervous-nelly turtle ("There are places in my shell I haven't been in"). Shandling's whine vies with Bruce Willis' smirk for vocal leadership in Dreamworks' latest computadorized pet shop, Willis as a wise-guy raccoon about to become the mid-hibernation snack of a bear (Nick Nolte) unless he can fill the grizzly's cave with food; a batch of forest animals (with vocals by the likes of Steve Carrell, Wanda Sykes, William Shatner, Eugene Levy, and Avril Levinne) are swindled into helping filch the goodies from the suburban fortress of a yuppie Cruella De Vil (Allison Janney). Sassy critters on the loose for synthetic chases and morals, so the Dreamworks recipe hasn't changed since Madagascar -- pop references are sprinkled around and messages about the essence of community are rolled out, while big-time actors breeze into the recording booth for an easy paycheck. A healthier formula than Disney's tuneful odes to happy patriarchal oppression, sure, but where's the so-called satire? Ours is a Fast Food Nation, as Linklater is to report, though Over the Hedge, for all its shtick-throwing porcupines and possums, scarcely has the wit to notice its own status as a product of runaway consumerism. Let the avalanche of video-games, stuffed animals, and kiddie meals take care of that.
Reviewed June 1, 2006.