“Angels & Demons” – The Good, the Bad and the Blurry – 2 & ½ popcorns

popcornBy Michael S. Goldberger, film critic

Just as you didn’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s Jewish Rye, you don’t have to be Catholic to appreciate “Angels & Demons.” But, like the little old lady said in defense of her chicken soup Rx to treat a cold, “It couldn’t hurt.” Defrocked of its church affiliation, Ron Howard’s filmic adaptation of Dan Brown’s novel is just one more mystery/thriller.

But there’s nothing like a couple millennia of history, lore and liturgy to make a frenzied scavenger hunt more consequential. Add the architecture of Rome and the Vatican—some real, some just movie magic—and all you need to spice things up is to have the four highest-ranking cardinals, The Preferiti, abducted.

Just to make the hyperkinetic puzzle a bit more confounding, it might also be a good idea to have us wonder if the good guys are really the bad guys. Thank goodness then that Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is called to the Vatican to read between the shadows and myths and perhaps save some lives. Maybe even a soul or two.

Via decidedly expository dialogue, the purpose of which is to bring Tom Hanks’s visiting professor up to speed, we learn there once existed a cadre of scientists known as Illuminati. Alas, they were deemed heretical and threatening. Persecuted and banned, their disfavor was indelibly noted when four were branded “Illuminati” and executed.

Well, it seems they’re back. And while it might be out of character for men of science, even after three centuries they apparently hold a grudge. All signs, pun fully intended, point to them as the kidnap culprits. What’s more, having stolen from a Swiss lab the Earth’s only vial of antimatter, they plan to unleash it on St. Peter’s Square at midnight.

Accompanying Langdon on his road rally of mercy through the sights and sounds of the Eternal City is a retinue of helpers and hinderers, each spouting canon, philosophy and conjecture on the run. You have to guess who is which. One is bound to throw you. Oh, just to complicate matters, we’re awaiting the election of a new Pope. The square is SRO.

Still, told with breathless embellishment, there’s plenty time in this overlong film for a parallel, contemporary discourse on whether science and religion are compatible. Of course Hanks’s academic enjoys a special, diplomatic status between these worlds. Whereas pretty Ayelet Zurer’s scientist hails from the unapologetically empirical ranks.

She is Vittoria Vetra, pressed into service as Langdon’s associate for her knowledge of the potential whirlwind her purloined experiment might reap. But while any number of the story’s principal clerics might serve as a third point in the timeless debate, Armin Mueller-Stahl’s award-worthy, conservative Cardinal Strauss seems especially valid.

Others among the angels and/or demons include Ewan McGregor as Patrick McKenna, the deceased pope’s camerlengo (right-hand priest); Stellan Skarsgard as Commander Richter, head of the Swiss Guard; and Nikolaj Lie Kaas, simply credited as the Assassin. With the film’s secrets held so close to its vestments, the appellation gives away nothing.

In short, compounding the already confusing mass of doctrine with the barrage of facts, clues and hypotheses relating to the skullduggery at hand, very little is quite what it seems. While viewers who pride themselves on separating the wheat from the chaff can expect a run for their tithes, those who’ve read the book won’t feel quite so challenged.

Then again, the dark and brooding presentments, coupled with David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman’s labyrinthine script, plus visuals to match, could just induce amnesia. And if not, with centuries of dogma at the ready there is much to chaw on or ferret through, depending on your point of view. In any case, director Howard deserves an A for effort.

A controversial novel prone to unleash all sorts of prejudice and misunderstanding, it’s a tough project making it palatable for the great unwashed. While it may be faint praise in an industry where blockbusters earn more kudos than art and intellect, Mr. Howard’s framing of the profound debate between science and religion proves quite astute.

But there is much that simply doesn’t translate fluidly to the screen. Though “Angels & Demons” has less explanatory soliloquies than “The Da Vinci Code” (2006) and aspires to quicker movement, the treatment, like trying to speed up baseball, may represent a contradiction in terms. It isn’t always easy to make cerebral components pocket-sized.

And yet, despite its unwieldy bulk, the director steers his suspense thriller to several surprises, the talented cast often helping him put us at pew’s edge. Unfortunately, expanding on the story’s thesis that religion is flawed because man is flawed, it is ironic that “Angels & Demons” is proof the same can be said of movies.

“Angels & Demons,” rated PG-13, is a Sony Pictures release directed by Ron Howard and stars Tom Hanks, Ayelet Zurer and Ewan McGregor. Running time: 138 minutes

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