Did you know that Tom Hanks appeared in an episode of “Happy Days” in 1982? I wonder whether the actor’s recent performances in the Dan Brown adaptations “The Da Vinci Code” and “Angels & Demons” are the result of his crossing paths all those years ago with Ron “Richie Cunningham” Howard. If so, I would characterize the day of their meeting as a really not-so-happy one.
For movie lovers and fans of Hanks and Howard anyway. Both rank with the most beloved and accomplished figures in American cinema but, let’s be honest: these two films represent perhaps the dumbest, most disposable work of their careers. In fact, to keep myself from dozing off during this latest bit of overwrought nonsense, I struggled to think of a role Hanks has played over the quarter century of his stardom which is less worthy of him. I drew a blank.
“Turner and Hooch” (1989) comes close. As you may recall, he played a detective whose partner was a constantly slobbering dog and, though this was dumb and disposable, “Angels & Demons” has it beat in both departments. Turner and Hooch, after all, was a comedy, while Howard’s latest is merely laughable. Hanks once again stars as blabbermouth Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon and his partner in this case is a ravishing Italian physicist whose name is Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer) and whose sole function in the picture is to talk when Hanks has to stop talking just long enough to take a breath. If anything, “Angels & Demons” is gabbier than its predecessor and that, so to speak, is saying a lot.
Shortly after the death of a popular pope, Langdon is summoned to the Vatican to straighten things out when agents of the Illuminati steal a canister of explosive anti-matter from a Geneva lab, kidnap four cardinals considered top contenders for the papacy, and threaten to blow St. Peter’s Square – and the hundreds of thousands of people in it – to kingdom come at the stroke of midnight. The Illuminati is an ancient pro-science secret society still ticked off at the Catholic Church for persecuting Galileo in the 17th century. Talk about holding a grudge. Langdon therefore has a mere matter of hours to locate the ticking timebomb. Though, this being a Dan Brown thriller, the canister hasn’t been hidden just anyplace; Illuminati members have taken great pains to stash it in a secret spot the professor can find only if he is able to solve a series of riddles, puzzles, and malarkey-filled mysteries in time. They may be sinister but, you’ve got to admit, they’re pretty damned thoughtful.
All of this naturally necessitates much running around Rome, researching of archives, and visiting of scenic tourist destinations. Mostly though, it involves talking. Hanks and Zurer blither like they’re getting paid by the arcane tidbit. Come award season they really do deserve special recognition for getting off the film’s silly, super-urgent dialogue while keeping a straight face.
“The chapel is Raphael but the statues are Bernini,” Langdon informs us in a typical scene as though compelled to regurgitate information whether or not it possesses relevance to the story. When he’s not educating the viewer on the subject of ancient history, he’s predicting the future. “An obelisk! A kind of pyramid adopted by the Illuminati! If he’s going to kill, he’ll do it here!” Long, windy lessons in art history, science, and Church tradition also follow.
The talent of Hanks and Howard is far from the only talent squandered here. Armin Mueller-Stahl and Ewan McGregor are wasted as well in the roles of a cardinal who, the script hints, may not be as pious as he seems and a priest so charming and devilishly handsome he simply must be, respectively. Brown is not renowned for his subtlety so, when Surprise Twist time at long last rolls around, only the dim and dozing are likely to be caught off guard. Let us pray this is the last Hanks-Howard-Brown collaboration with which audiences will be blessed. The summer blockbuster season has barely begun. Nonetheless, if “Angels & Demons” doesn’t prove the biggest disappointment of the season, it will be nothing short of a miracle.