What do you think of when you hear “Tom Hanks”? The American everyman or the Antichrist’s emissary? Affable pal or appalling performer? Ready for coronation or ripe for condemnation? To coincide with Hanks’s latest film premiering this month, Midwest Film Journal staff writer Sam Watermeier and contributor Dave Gutierrez will offer conflicting viewpoints on the iconic (or is it irritating?) actor every week. On Tuesdays, Dave will say Hanks for Nothing, Tom! On Wednesdays, Sam will say Hanks for Everything, Tom! At month’s end, they’ll face each other in what we’re calling the Gump-Off. To paraphrase Forrest: This series is like a box of chocolates. Some of them are dosed with poison.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with being popular. While I’ll be the first to tell you a movie, a game, a beer or a houseplant isn’t automatically good just because a lot of people like it, I’m also not the kind of condescending hipster who can only enjoy something if I’m the only person who’s ever heard of it or (worse yet) thinks something can only be great if only a select few understand it. The Venn diagram of quality and popularity really does have significant overlap, and it would be pretty foolish to try to argue that Batman, bacon or the Rolling Stones are no good because the masses like them.
I hate that attitude, and I don’t want anyone to mistake my disdain for Tom Hanks as simple iconoclasm from someone who just can’t stand when people like things.
That said, it’s also undeniably true that there is stuff that achieves near-global popularity despite being, objectively, pretty terrible. Call it the Applebee’s Effect. No one likes Applebee’s. No one chooses it as their favorite restaurant. No one thinks the microwaved nine-cheese cheesy mac and cheese quesadilla bites with queso dip is good food. And yet somehow the United States has 1,800 of these hellholes scattered in front of its strip malls. It’s not just our problem; there’s even one in Qatar, for crying out loud.
I believe it comes down to familiarity. Yes, the honey-mustard chicken jambalaya doughnut burger at the Applebee’s outside the bowling alley in Sioux Falls, S.D. is awful, but it’s the exact same awful as the one outside the Lowe’s in Macon, Ga., or the one by the Walmart in Norristown, Pa. They all have the same faux-eclectic décor, the same laminated menu with nice, comforting pictures of the food. Your entrée will be heated in the same brand-standard industrial microwave. They won’t offer you a weird beer you’ve never heard of and you’re guaranteed to hear Smash Mouth playing “All Star” at least once before you leave.
You know what you’re getting with an Applebee’s even when you know that what you’re getting is a solid D-, and that’s being generous. Applebee’s is a safe choice because no matter how unsatisfying it is, you know exactly how much you’re going to like it going in and expectations are so low that there’s no chance you’ll be disappointed. (This isn’t an elitist foodie thing, either. I’m not saying people have to eat at five-star restaurants. I’ve been in greasy-spoon diners and family cafes that are way better than an Applebee’s. There’s literally no experience you can have at an Applebee’s that wouldn’t be much better somewhere else, but they’re still ubiquitous.)
The Da Vinci Code is the Applebee’s of books. Which is fitting, because Tom Hanks is the Applebee’s of actors. (I could go on. Will Smith is the Applebee’s of rappers. Heineken is the Applebee’s of beers. Superman is the Applebee’s of superheroes. Seriously, it never ends.)
My disappointment in The Da Vinci Code predates the abysmal movie by several years, going all the way back to reading the novel for the first time amid the hype surrounding its release. While book critics were decidedly mixed at the time (some correctly calling out the abysmal prose and nonsensical plot twists), the public was not. Dan Brown, the book’s author, can’t write a coherent sentence. But I suspect he takes some comfort in the dump trucks full of money he made as an undiscerning public put his book on every nightstand around the world. I bought a copy on the glowing recommendation of several acquaintances (“I haven’t read a book since high school, but this one is amazing!”) and proceeded to spend the next 700 pages with a growing sense of disbelief. How could people think this was good? Who taught this guy English? What in the world is going on? Why would anyone choose this as the one thing they’re going to read?
It’s important to note how much I hated the book because unlike the rest of the films I’m writing about for this series, I had not seen this one when I chose it. I was completely confident that the film would be awful — and that Hanks would make it worse — but there was some risk here. What if this was the one that pushed me over to Sam’s side? I mean, I’ll grudgingly admit to enjoying Big and I can appreciate the zany ‘80s appeal of Bachelor Party, but what if somehow director Ron Howard polished this turd into a diamond? Would I have to write this essay and confess to enjoying it? Would The Da Vinci Code be the crack in the face of my Hanks hatred that brought the whole castle down?
Ten minutes into the movie, I texted Sam and our editors: “This is so bad so far. It’s everything I hoped.”
What passes for a plot manages to sound more complex than it actually is because if Dan Brown is good at anything, it’s spinning the flimsiest threads into a web of pseudo-intellectual nonsense. It makes you feel like you’re watching something smart, but only if no one touches, breathes on or even looks at it too hard. That’s all it takes for the whole thing to fall apart.
Hanks stars as Robert Langdon, a milquetoast professor of symbology. Somehow, Langdon both knows exactly the right granular details of his field to repeatedly escape certain doom and also regularly fails to observe even the most obvious broad stroke that would keep him out of trouble in the first place.
Our first meeting with Langdon is intercut with an unusually intense monk named Silas (Paul Bettany) pursuing and murdering Louvre curator Jacques Saunière (Jean-Pierre Marielle). Langdon is the last scheduled appointment in Saunière’s calendar, so he’s naturally the first one police want to question when Saunière’s body is discovered on the museum floor — nude and surrounded by nonsensical messages scrawled with his own blood. Overzealous Inspector Fache (the great Jean Reno) is ready to bring Langdon in, but he’s rescued by the arrival of police cryptographer Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou), who distracts the officers and gets a private word with Langdon.
In the first of a seemingly endless string of wild leaps that strain credulity, Sophie convinces Langdon that the right thing to do is to help her solve the mysterious death of this old man (who turns out to be her grandfather) and the cryptic clues written on the floor. Why doesn’t Langdon insist that this be handled through official channels instead of going on the run from the police? No idea. Why does a man dying from a gunshot wound to the chest take time to write not one, not two, but three different hidden messages — in code! — throughout the museum instead of the one clear thing he wants them to know? I’ve never been shot in the chest but under that circumstance, I have a sneaking suspicion I would struggle to summon an anagram for “Madonna of the Rocks.” Especially if that anagram was to direct someone to another anagram. Dying, coming up with coded clues … and adding extra steps to make it more fun!
Anyway, off our two heroes go on Grandpa’s puzzle hunt, which leads them to a centuries-old safe deposit box. Langdon rambles through some exposition about the history of the Priory of Sion, the vast international conspiracy which has hidden the Holy Grail for centuries. Howard helpfully illustrates these long expository monologues for us with some bad CGI, mostly to spare us the sight of Hanks droning on and on for five minutes at a time. They open the box and retrieve another puzzle, a cryptex. There’s some long explanation about vinegar, papyrus and code wheels, but the upshot is that this particular McGuffin only gives you one chance to put in an answer and unlock it; otherwise the ostensibly secret message inside will be destroyed forever. Of course Sophie and Langdon know everything there is to know about the cryptex, which makes it easy for them to explain it to each other and thereby the audience. More droning.
The cops follow them to the bank, of course. Luckily, a helpful banker informs them that — due to the laws of deus ex machina and poor plotting — their lockbox comes with a centuries-old agreement that he will risk life and limb to grant them safe passage even if they’re wanted criminals. Why create random danger only to just as randomly write an incredibly convenient exit not 30 seconds later? Again, no idea. Nothing about this movie makes any damn sense.
After their narrow-but-also-completely-unsuspenseful escape, Langdon decides the two of them need to talk to Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen) — a renowned Holy Grail scholar and close friend / colleague to Langdon who conveniently lives about 10 minutes away from the place the bank agent randomly stranded them. McKellen’s puckish charm and sparkling smile are the best thing about this terrible movie but not enough to cover his responsibility for what feels like an extra hour of droning exposition about the Grail, the church, the sacred feminine and so on. Thankfully, Silas the Murderous Monk arrives to break up their party, and they make a run for Teabing’s private plane to solve more riddles in London and do something regarding Sir Isaac Newton and frankly it’s impossible to even care at this point.
See, as awful as the novel was, the only thing that kind of worked about it was the reader’s ability to puzzle over Brown’s endless stream of cryptic puzzles and clues. Even if you only spent a couple extra seconds with the brain teasers as you were reading, Langdon’s solutions on the page could prompt you to re-read and enjoy the dopamine rush of finding the solution to a riddle. Watching Hanks mindlessly burble out clues one minute and solve them the next lacks even that little bit of magic. You’re never invested in it, so there’s no sharing in the joy when the characters figure it out.
The film’s third act is an absolute disaster of those joyless riddles and big reveals. We learn that Silas is working for Teabing, who is of course also the villain. He’s been playing the church against the Priory because he’s mad that the Priory didn’t reveal the true identity of the Holy Grail at the turn of the century as was foretold in the prophecies. I’m not making this up: The main villain of The Da Vinci Code commits multiple homicides — including a threat against one of his oldest friends — simply because he’s annoyed that no one destroyed the Catholic Church on his preferred schedule.
If you step back and think about it for even a second, this is really the most emptyheaded leap in the whole plot. First of all, Teabing’s motivations make no sense. Then, for all the supposedly intricate twists and turns, the second phase of Teabing’s plan hinges on the completely coincidental arrival of Langdon and Sophie at his home. Langdon and Sophie literally bumble right into Teabing’s hands, he calls Silas to come kill them, and then changes his mind at the last second when he realizes that he can’t solve the Grail mystery without them. But then why does he go back to attempted murder 20 minutes later? Langdon tricks and disarms Teabing just in time for the police to arrive — FROM FRANCE — and arrest Teabing but inexplicably let our heroes, whom they’ve been chasing the entire time, run free to seek the next piece of their Grail puzzle. A murderer just smuggled them from France to the United Kingdom on a private plane, and the authorities don’t want to ask a few questions?
I fear I’m not doing justice to The Da Vinci Code’s colossal insult to our collective intelligence. If the Priory wanted it to be so difficult to find the Grail, why create a puzzle that a dopey professor and an inexperienced policewoman can solve in a matter of hours? Why not just, I don’t know, keep the whole thing a secret? I mean, they did. The cryptex containing the map hadn’t been opened in centuries, but all Priory agents know where the Grail is; it’s not like they’ve locked up something they need. Don’t come at me with nonsense about passing information on after they die; the end of the movie reveals there are, like, 40 more people who know the secret and have been hanging out to watch our heroes nearly die this whole time without bothering to help.
This movie makes no sense. None.
The whole endeavor is a disaster, but the two main stars do it absolutely no favors. Tautou looks miserable and has none of her signature energy. Hanks is not his usual overacting self here, but that’s not a good thing. His performance is completely uninspired, with an utter disinterest in giving Langdon even a little bit of depth. His lack of effort stands in sharp contrast to McKellen’s gleeful take on Teabing in every scene they have together. Even though McKellen has made no secret of his disdain for the novel, he clearly enjoys hamming it up and giving Teabing far more personality than he deserves. There’s nothing to energize Hanks here, though. He looks bored spouting exposition, he has no chemistry with Tautou of any kind, and he looks so out of place in the action sequences that you wonder if he even read the script before he signed up.
Honestly? He probably didn’t need to read it. See, Hanks is a guy who understands precisely what it means to be an Applebee’s. He’s America’s most bankable star, but in 2006 he was coming off a bit of a rough patch compared to the glory days of the late ’90s. Road to Perdition got decent reviews and an Oscar nomination for Paul Newman, but it didn’t make as much money as people expected. The Polar Express was a Christmas movie with no soul (more to come on that next week). For anyone else, The Terminal would’ve been a throwaway; as a Hanks / Steven Spielberg project, it was a disaster. And not even the Coen Brothers could save The Ladykillers. Indeed, Hanks was a couple risky roles away from becoming an afterthought.
So what could be safer than the highly anticipated film version of a massively popular novel, with a director guaranteed not to take any risks and a supporting cast that was talented but unlikely to steal the spotlight? No risk here, this was a guaranteed hit and bound to put him right back on the top of the bankable stars list. It’s one of the things I really dislike about Hanks as an established star. He doesn’t risk anything. He knows America will gush over a D+ performance from him because he’s safe. Yes, he played a gay man in Philadelphia, but a gay man who didn’t even kiss his partner onscreen. (A bit of Hanks cowardice that has been severely under-criticized.) He played a hero astronaut in Apollo 13, a hero G.I. in Saving Private Ryan, deified real-life heroes in Captain Phillips and Sully. For Christ’s sake, the guy has played both Walt Disney and Mister Effing Rogers!
He takes no chances with those performances, unless you count his weird propensity to do horrible accents. He doesn’t show us anything new or different, he doesn’t challenge his fans to see things they hadn’t thought about before. It’s just the same old Tom Hanks, doing the same low-effort shtick and raking in the money. Just like an Applebee’s, you don’t need to look at the menu. The food may not be good, but you know it’s always going to be the same.