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MOVIE REVIEW

Painted into a corner

By sticking faithfully to the novel, 'The Da Vinci Code' never comes to life

And now the circus goes quiet. In the hush, under the spotlight, after 40 days and 40 nights of manufactured hype and impassioned controversy (or is it the other way around?), stands a small, surprisingly ordinary movie. As a film derived from a book, ''The Da Vinci Code" isn't a fiasco on the order of ''The Bonfire of the Vanities" nor is it a triumph a la ''The Lord of the Rings." Instead, it's an acceptable but uninspired simulacrum: an overly faithful multiplex translation of a very, very popular airport novel.

The Hollywood alchemists haven't turned gold to lead. They've turned copper to zinc.

Ron Howard, it turns out, was precisely the wrong person to bring Dan Brown's best-selling novel to the screen. This project needed a risk-taker and a stylist, someone who could transmute a book that alternates routine action scenes with art-history lectures into riveting cinema. Howard's a good studio soldier, though, and with his house screenwriter Akiva Goldsman he has delivered a ''Da Vinci Code" that's chained timidly to its source. If you've read the book, it'll seem like a dutiful pilgrim's tour of the salient plot points: Here we are at the Louvre, now we go to the Bank of Zurich, whoops, Jesus had a home life. If you haven't read the book, you may wonder what all the noise was about.

How's Tom Hanks's hair? Fine, fine; it's a wardrobe affectation but you get over it after the first few scenes. The real problem facing our Tom is that he doesn't have a character to play. Robert Langdon, Harvard professor of symbology and dashing doubting Thomas, functions as a mouthpiece for Brown's wild and woolly Christian conspiracy theories, and where it's easy for a reader to project three-dimensionality onto the character on the page, Hanks is left holding the bag onscreen.

As the audience's surrogate American in Paris, Langdon has to declaim silly lines of exposition such as ''This is the Bois de Boulogne?" or expound at length on the secrets of Leonardo da Vinci and the shadowy Priory of Sion to Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou), the fetching French cryptographer who gets swept up in the mystery. Hanks never breaks through the thick webbing of plot to create a viable human being, though; this may be his most constipated, least Hanksian performance ever.

Nor does Tautou, the wonky free spirit of ''Amelie," fare any better. Sophie is stuck asking breathless questions so Langdon can give his discourses; she also occasionally cranks up the suspense by urgently whispering, ''We must find anozzer way!" Don't expect romance between these two, either. Langdon's admiring ''I've never met a girl who knew that much about a cryptex" is the closest he gets to sweet nothings.

To recap for the uninitiated: Jacques Sauniere (Jean-Pierre Marielle), an aging curator at the Louvre, is found murdered in one of the museum galleries, his nude body grotesquely posed and arcane messages written around him in ultraviolet pen. The detective on the case, Bezu Fache (who else but Jean Reno?), brings Langdon to the crime scene for consultation and grilling, since all clues point to the professor. With the aid of Neveu, Sauniere's granddaughter, Langdon escapes, and the two are off on a merry chase across both France and centuries of Church secrets.

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Sauniere, it seems, was the grandmaster of a hidden order called the Priory of Sion, which holds the true secret of the Holy Grail. Da Vinci was in on the mystery, as was Isaac Newton, as was apparently the entire supporting cast of ''Eyes Wide Shut." Without giving anything away to newcomers, it involves the relationship of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene, the Divine Goddess, and lots of historical flashbacks that look like colorized outtakes from old Cecil B. DeMille epics.

Does the Church like this? Not at all, which is why a rogue bishop (Alfred Molina) in the conservative Catholic sect Opus Dei has sent his albino right-hand monk, Silas (Paul Bettany), to murder the Priory members and find the location of the Grail. In turn, both bishop and disciple are being used by an enigmatic Teacher.

More than half the fun of the novel lay in the puzzles, of course: anagrams and riddles and keystones, hints buried in famous paintings that divulged the next step of the treasure hunt while allowing Dan Brown to indulge in miniature ''Leonardo for Dummies" crash courses. This was literature as computer game, but the movie treats it as scripture and nearly bleeds the zing out of it.

When the fugitives arrive at the palatial estate of Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen), an airy British Grail expert, ''The Da Vinci Code" temporarily gets the lift it needs. McKellen alone understands the inherent pulp silliness of the material, and when he introduces the existence of the Gospel of Philip, he could just as well be talking about the Gospel of Bob.

Eventually, he's chewed up in the plot mechanics, though; as in the book, once the Big Secret has been aired, there's nothing to do but fall back on lazy thriller cliches, up to and including lurking butlers. The movie does pick up anew after McKellen is offscreen, and in the final 15 minutes you can feel Howard rousing himself to care. Hans Zimmer's functional suspense score turns lyrical, the images mist up, and the script delivers sentiments along the lines of ''Why does it have to be human and divine? Maybe human is divine." The devout may take this as just the latest installment of Hollywood secularism while others may write it off as watered-down Beverly Hills Buddhism. But at least it feels felt.

Anyway, there's enough for the faithful to get their knickers in a twist over, if they choose to. The reason ''The Da Vinci Code" has been a publishing phenomenon, though, is only partly because of its perceived heresies. ''Is [all this] possible?" asks Sophie at one point, to which Robert responds, ''It's not impossible," and in that gulf lives our abiding love of conspiracy theories -- our sense that we've been lied to but that the Truth is in the patterns if we're just smart enough to see it. Brown has merely added the Son of God to the JFK assassination and Area 51 as subjects for endless pop cryptography.

All right, conservative Catholics don't come off well here, but neither do misguided atheists, for that matter. The scenes where Silas indulges in his gentle hobby of ritual mortification are played for horror-movie gruesomeness, but maybe the filmmakers can be excused for thinking this sort of thing packs the house after the success of ''The Passion of the Christ."

The greater sin in ''The Da Vinci Code" is against storytelling: The movie is handsome and hogtied and dour as a parson. In its defense, it does make manifest the pleasures of a good book. In the film's goofiest line of dialogue, Hanks turns to Tautou and exclaims, ''I've got to get to a library -- fast."

Lord, don't we all.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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