Thursday, May 14, 2009

"Angels & Demons,' hellishly medicore

In my perfect world, Ron Howard and Tom Hanks would leave the Catholic Church alone. I'm not talking about the ability of either artist or director to mount effective assaults on matters of Catholic doctrine, but about aesthetic sins they've committed in the name of mass entertainment. In their second attempt to bring a work by author Dan Brown to the screen, Howard and Hanks have concocted an often-ridiculous sequel to the turgid, plodding "The Da Vinci Code."

Written by Brown as prequel but brought to the screen as a sequel by Howard, "Angels & Demons" seems to have been made to silence critics who snoozed through the first movie. It's as if the filmmakers want to tell us that they're skilled enough to get our pulses pumping. What once was talky has become action-oriented. What was dramatically tepid has been sprayed with gas-fueled melodrama. And the structure of the movie -- a point-by-point race against the clock in Rome -- should serve as an embarrassment to film students who are attempting to learn the subtleties of a well-balanced three acts.

In the only coinage that really matters in Hollywood, Howard probably has a hit on his hands. Though a bit mixed on the movie, Variety pointed out that "Angels and Demons" will make "an unholy amount of money." Maybe, but for me potential profitability does nothing to take the sting off a film that's short on both characterization and sophistication and which substitutes arcane Catholic jargon for real depth. I don't know about anyone else, but I have not eagerly been awaiting a concise definition of the duties of a Vatican Camerlengo, and if I had been, I probably wouldn't have expected to find it at a multiplex.

This time, Hanks' Robert Langdon is summoned to Rome to help stave off what he's told is a plot by a dissident group called The Illuminati. The Illuminati -- a splinter sect that evidently has a greater devotion to reason than faith -- is trying to avenge some long-ago purge of its membership. The group reportedly has taken four cardinals hostage just before a papal conclave is about to begin. With the election of new pope imminent, the kidnapped cardinals -- each considered a frontrunner for the pontifical office -- must be rescued. Langdon -- a symbologist by trade -- knows how to read the clues that will help stave off catastrophe, the threat of which has been made worse by the placement of a canister of anti-matter deep within the recesses of the Vatican. Yes, it's the old ticking-bomb trick, applied here without shame.

As our representatives of science -- Langdon and a physicist partner (Ayelet Zurer) -- race around Rome, often finding themselves at odds with the Vatican's head of security (Stellan Skarsgard) and an old-line cardinal (Armin Mueller-Stahl) who wants to proceed with the papal conclave regardless of any risk to the Vatican or to the thousands of onlookers who have gathered in St. Peter's Square. At various points, the church's Camerlengo (Ewan McGregor) tries to be of assistance, adopting what appears to be a measured approach.

OK. Here it is: Among other things, the Camerlengo takes over the papal duties between the death of the old pope and election of a new pontiff.

A ham-handed sprinkling of red herrings may supply some suspense, but "Angels & Demons" is a thrill ride without real excitement. And although the stakes are boosted -- possible evaporation of Rome -- nothing feels real other than the movie's need to rush from one scene to the next. The supposition, one supposes, is that if all the characters are breathless, we'll eagerly follow suit. And just in case, we don't take the threats against the cardinals seriously, Howard shows us several of them being murdered in particularly vicious ways.

"Angels & Demons" has set off a small firestorm of Catholic opposition, and there's plenty about which the Church might be wary. But in the fight between faith and reason, Howard -- working with screenwriters David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman -- cops out. He tells us we need them both, delivering the message as if it were a sudden realization. If this movie had any teeth, someone conveniently pulled them. And unlike with "The Da Vinci Code" we never feel as if we're discovering some forbidden secret that might irrevocably alter the way we view our culture and ourselves. We're watching one more summer movie -- only with lots of choral music played loud enough to rattle the fillings of any angels who might be listening.

As for Hanks ... The movie is so intent on being propulsive, he could have stayed home. Maybe Nicolas Cage wasn't available. In fact, at times "Angels & Demons" reminded me of the kind of Jerry Bruckheimer treasure-hunting movies that have turned into cash cows for Cage. OK, maybe it's a bit more sophisticated -- but not much.

I know. This one will do great business. The fans will flock, and no one will be tempted to shout it out of town. But make no mistake: "Angels & Demons" is far from heavenly. It's hellishly mediocre.

No comments: