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MOVIE REVIEW

Angels & Demons

Unoriginal sin: In 'Angels & Demons,' Ron Howard exorcises what's best about the book

By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / May 15, 2009

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Not all trash is art, but there's an art to making trash. So, father, forgive the makers of "Angels & Demons," for they know not what they do. Dan Brown's mystery novel, full of flamboyantly murdered cardinals, facts of every gratuitous stripe, and information kiosks masquerading as characters, has been given the serious treatment. OK, no movie whose climax includes a man of God plummeting, in his vestments, from the sky with a parachute is entirely serious.

But given the book's indecent juiciness, there's every reason to lament the creaky contraption Ron Howard and his screenwriters, Akiva Goldsman and David Koepp, have devised. Howard also directed "The Da Vinci Code," based on the blockbuster Brown wrote after 2000's "Angels & Demons." Asking whether the new movie is better than the first is natural if moot. Would you prefer to drown in a swimming pool or an ocean?

"Angels & Demons" puts us back in the company of professor Robert Langdon, the droopy Harvard symbologist played once more by Tom Hanks. The Vatican has summoned Langdon to look into the meaning of mysterious ghastly events on the premises. The professor has been selected for his "expertise," his "erudition," and, most certainly, for his hair, which appears to be growing hydroponically from his scalp. The Church believes in miracles, yes, but what about Miracle-Gro?

Langdon arrives in St. Peter's Square not long after the pope has died. A conclave is underway for a replacement. But this ghastly killing, with its awful markings, suggests a conspiracy is afoot. Indeed, Langdon deduces that the branding is the work of an ancient, evil secret society called the Illuminati.

The group has come out of hiding, having hired an assassin to kidnap and kill each of the four papal candidates (one per hour) until midnight (the chase gets underway at 6:53 p.m.), at which point a stolen canister containing less than a gram of antimatter will explode in the Basilica, destroying everything, killing everyone. The late pope's chief aide (Ewan McGregor) wants the threats publicized. But the elder cardinal overseeing the conclave (Armin Mueller-Stahl) demands secrecy and order.

Who in the Church is behind this craziness? Can Langdon read the signs quickly enough to stop it? Such lines as "Shining star at the end of the path? I thought so, too!" suggest that he'll at least get close. Langdon is speaking there to Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer), a scientist with luxurious curls. A colleague was slain when the canister was taken in Switzerland, and she spends the movie running around Rome at Hanks's side.

Zurer, an Israeli using a shaky Italian accent, has some zest for the nonsense thrown her way. But all the chemistry between her and Hanks occurs strictly between their hair. She's a "bio-entanglement physicist." So presumably when she's not working on developing antimatter, she's coming up with the most amazing shampoos.

At many junctures the film makes wild, sad divergences from its source. I was truly looking forward to seeing Zurer say to Hanks, "You've never been to bed with a yoga master, have you?" So much for that. Catholic groups are throwing fits about the film's alleged irreverence, but it's not irreverent enough. Howard seems more afraid of crossing the almighty ratings board than potential boycotters.

The film tips its cap to the campy and the risible. Stellan Skarsgard, playing the head of the Swiss Guard, speaks witheringly when he can ("Thank goodness. The symbologist is here"), the public protests near the Vatican over stem cell research are badly enough staged and acted to be enjoyable, and there's a cut from a burning cardinal to an oven full of roasting communion wafers that's in delightfully poor taste.

Oddly, the filmmakers hold back at the risk of offense, as if a way exists to sugarcoat the ridiculousness of it all. Toward the end of the film, Mueller-Stahl's cardinal gives Langdon some advice for his next book. "When you write of this - and write of this you will," he says with Yoda-like prescience, "be gentle." Just what's needed for a movie about an ancient heretical outfit threatening to blow up the Vatican with a drop of antimatter: a Puritan touch.

In the 1970s, the trash impulse gave us movies like "The Exorcist," "The Omen," and "The Manitou," where the line between sacrament and excrement was unimportant. In "The Manitou," seeing Tony Curtis take on the angry Native American demon growing out of Susan Strasberg's back was a hoot both because and despite of how inane it was. "Angels & Demons" is more conspiracy-minded, but its base antics and profaning of the sacred are trashy.

Even so, Howard and the screenwriters seem to really want to make a case for the grand themes in Brown's book. So just like "The Da Vinci Code," the film goes on for long, discursive stretches in which Langdon and whoever happens to be standing near him volley the Big Ideas. This is beside the point, like getting access to Pamela Anderson and reporting back that she can read.

The delight of Brown's book was entirely backhanded. "Angels & Demons" was crap, but it was exhilarating crap. He wrote with riveting badness. Langdon was pompous, Brown condescending, and the sentences purple enough to give Prince pause! Watching what Howard has done with the book - covering up the lewdness, blunting the snobbery, and spackling the amazing plot holes - is dismaying.

This adaptation has the stink of superiority about it. It thinks that by deleting all the sex and playing up the theological struggles it's somehow better than the novel. But Brown writes with glee and gusto, like a man who recently discovered that fingers applied to a keyboard produce words. The novel was a 137-chapter typing spree.

Howard simply isn't as good a filmmaker as Brown is a blissfully terrible writer. He hasn't directed with that kind of joy since "Splash." The self-mocking sense of humor he uses in the political ads he stars in and cameos he makes (Howard recently put in a hilarious appearance in Jamie Foxx's video for "Blame It") never surfaces in his movies. His Oscar has only exacerbated his addiction to prestige commercialism. It's a real problem. He can't make trash or art.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation

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