Armin Mueller-Stahl and Ewan McGregor acting the hell out of their roles
So far Angels and Demons has racked up a pile of money and a load of bad reviews. It deserves the bad reviews, heaven knows, but in reading some of them it’s clear that we sometimes forget the important function media crap plays in our culture. We need crap, and in fairness, we ought to acknowledge that need.
When I saw that Angels and Demons was opening, I muttered a quick thanks to the god Baal, because it so happens I am, at this particular point in time, mentally fried. I crave the half-conscious, heavy-lidded stupor that has kept sit-coms popular since TV was invented. But films can be dangerous; they’re too absorbing; that big, sensational image and all. There’s always the risk that even the dumbest Keystone Kops of the movie-making racket might accidentally capture a powerful effect, film being so prone to powerful effects, and I can’t handle that right now. I’ll start weeping right there in the multiplex.
But Angels and Demons seemed so safe, so clearly designed to put one in a temporary vegetative state and then be blessedly forgotten. It’s the filmic follow-up to The Da Vinci Code, and look how quickly I forgot that? All I can remember is the albino assassin, who had a certain je ne sais quoi. I saw that one during a family reunion, and it was a complete godsend at the time, consigning fractious relatives to healing communal silence for two hours.
If you want to be put in a restful semi-coma, Angels and Demons starts off great, couldn’t be better. It’s got a harmless potboiler plot, something about a dead pope and Vatican intrigue, which is ideal because, while the brain dozes, the eye is happily occupied by on-location shooting in Rome, nice plazas, nude statuary, and actors strutting around in those splashy red outfits the Catholic brass still wear.
Tom Hanks is awed by how much money he just made
Tom Hanks is in it, the cinematic equivalent of Sleep-EZE. He plays Robert Langdon, the “symbologist” in Dan Brown’s books who solves all the mysteries, and sure enough he goes around interpreting symbols with uncanny accuracy and explaining historical stuff to people. Oddly enough, characters tend to translate Latin and Italian into English for him. Wouldn’t the world’s foremost expert in scandals involving the Catholic Church know Latin and Italian better than anybody? That’s the kind of thing you vaguely wonder while watching the movie. You also vaguely wonder where Ewan McGregor got that marvelous facelift that makes him look so innocent and boyish as Father What’s-his-name, the smarmy idealist at the Vatican. You can’t drink hard liquor like Ewan McGregor and come out of it with a face like a pink rose at dawn.
It’s also helpful that the movie spells out the whole plot right away, so you can settle back restfully. It’s a basic chase structure. The good guys are trying to rescue four abducted cardinals, the favorites of the recently deceased pope, one of whom would be likely to inherit the big white hat. The fiendish abductors, who are supposedly out for belated revenge on behalf of the “Illuminati,” early scientists persecuted by the church, are going to kill one cardinal each hour, and then blow up Vatican City with an anti-matter bomb captured from a lab. So you figure you know exactly what you’re in for: at least three dead cardinals, colorfully murdered, a final ticking-clock chase for the anti-matter, and home in time for reruns of Dogs 101.
That all goes fine, but then something terrible happens. After they locate the anti-matter and it looks like smooth sailing to the finish, a whole other elaborate sequence pops up that’s so loony, so hilarious, so cretinous and crazy, it awakens you from your peaceful haze. It forces your eyes to focus in order to verify what you’re actually seeing. There’s a parachuting priest involved, and that’s the sanest part. It’s at least a 45 on the Hooey Meter, and technically the Hooey Meter only goes up to 40.
Consulting with people who’ve read the book, I’m told that, if anything, the climactic action in the book is even nuttier than the movie, so it turns out that director Ron Howard and his cronies actually tried to tamp this stuff down a little. But it’s no use—the wacky action finale ruins the whole zoning-out experience, plus it pushes the film to a punishing two-and-a-half hours. Damn! Sometimes it seems like they can’t even make good crap anymore.
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