Angels & Demons
I believe it’s Einstein’s theory of relativity that states the faster you travel, the slower that time (relative to a fixed point) passes for you. I got a C in Einsteinian physics, which is why I’m not making hundreds of dollars as a theoretical physicist, but it follows from this theory that you could ostensibly travel into the “future” simply by flying around at a high enough rate of speed. This leads one to wonder: is it possible that Opie Taylor’s plot in 2009’s Angels & Demons was whipping along fast enough that Robert Langdon (Buffy Wilson) was able to pass into the future and figure out its Rubick’s Cubian braintwisters in advance? This still wouldn’t explain how he was able to return to his time frame of reference to save the world, but if I had to guess I’d say it had something to do with black holes, or wormholes. Or, at the very least, plotholes.
The movie opens with Langdon in the Harvard pool, showing off the lithe physique that tempted Mr. Melody Griffith all those years ago, before that nastiness with the bad makeup and the pity Oscars. This is the only scene in the movie that doesn’t involve men in red dresses, Fiats burning rubber through church parking lots, or pious prospective popes parachuting to Peter’s Square. Sorry, spoiler alert, but then you already knew that, or would, if you were reading fast enough. An emissary from the Vatican has arrived to let Langdon know that there is a terrible, terrible plot coming, and if he doesn’t do something about it the movie may end before they’re able to show a close-up of the dead pope’s tongue.
From that moment on, the script runs like a well-oiled Usain Bolt, which is to say quickly, and with a spectacular sheen, but ultimately slipping on its own polish and falling headlong into a finish-line faceplant. As the plot whips along, Langdon solves progressively more ridiculous riddles that were hidden hundreds of years ago by the Illuminati, riddles whose answers depend entirely on whether or not a statue had been moved one quarter turn in the intervening centuries. I guess the Illuminati didn’t go to the same school of interior design that my mom did. If my dad had ever set up an elaborate riddle that led to the whereabouts of the TV remote, it would have been foiled because the couch would have been moved three times before we even finished reading the iron brand off my brother’s chest (protip: it was under the recliner the whole time).
I have a confession, though, and this one doesn’t involve a Sharpie and a blackout drunk: I love this kind of movie. For that, I blame GI Joe. This movie features what I like to refer to as The Weather Dominator Plot. In this classic plot, The Goal (here it is a phial filled with what appears to be either pixie dust or the Universe from Men In Black) is somehow unobtainable unless the heroes travel either to the four corners of the globe or, as is the case here, to four random churches in Rome. It helps if there is some kind of a timer and voila! there is a timer here, with a handy-dandy LED readout that is disturbingly similar to the one on my electric razor (note to self: keep razor charged, lest we all perish). It also helps if there are regularly occurring bouts of violence, and boy, does this movie deliver there. If you have a deep-seated hatred for Catholic priests (and no, I don’t want to hear about your childhood), then you’re in for a hell of a catharsis with this movie. Finally, it helps if the cast fits the bill, and here it shines. Every character is played by just the right actor, and every actor delivers their patently ridiculous lines with dead earnestness that cuts the perfect balance between drama and parody.
As I’ve said, the plot is breakneck and clichéd, and utterly lovable. I had a smile on my face the whole time. What isn’t lovable, however, is the screenplay. The screenwriter, Akiva Goldsman, is a serial expositionist. The only time the plot of the movie ever takes a break is when a character needs to pause to puke out the entire contents of their brain all over the audience. Now, I like Arman Meuller-Stahl a lot. If you need a Sinister Austrian Banker, or a Sinister Viennese Conspirator, or, one would assume, a Sinister German Polka Dancer, he’s your man. But you don’t need to saddle Arman with the unenviable task of explaining who the preferati are, why they’ve been kidnapped, and what it means to the future of the Catholic Church if they’re not found. Well, okay, maybe you do. But you don’t need to saddle him up twice and run him around like an organ grinder monkey on a greyhound’s back, and that’s what Akiva does here. If you ever wanted to know more than you ever wanted to know about apocryphal Catholic history, just pay attention and you’ll learn it all through repetition.
What really holds the movie together is the direction. Opie gets a lot of flack from the cinephiles among us, for pumping out trite, feel-good, soft-focus family fare that’s aimed at making a profit and not much else. While I’m not here to defend his oeuvre, I can say with certainty that the man knows what he’s doing. In a less-capable director’s hands this movie turns into a mess of jumbled locales, obscure references, and superfluous characters that seem to appear solely as human-sized Dutch fingers ready to plug the leaking holes in the plot dyke, and yes, I need to work on my metaphors (but at least I got the monkey one in, and I liked that a lot). Opie, however, treats this plot like performance art; he’s a juggler that’s keeping tenpins and a chainsaw in the air while lighting a cigar with his toes. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever before seen a movie that succeeds this well almost solely on the strength of its pacing.
Ultimately, this movie only works if you like this kind of movie. If scavenger hunts bore you, and you don’t like all of your dialog in the expository vein, then move along. If, however, you’re the kind of person that gets a goofy grin when Tom Hanks leans into the camera and, with deadpan earnestness, tells you that the future of the world depends on finding a Bernini sculpture on the other side of Rome, right next to the park where John McClain is looking for a suitcase bomb and down the street from the catacombs where Indy’s finding the Grail Knight’s shield, well, then this is the movie for you.
Tags: 3-star, Akiva Goldsman, Antonio Banderas, Arman Meuller-Stahl, Die Hard: With a Vengeance, GI Joe, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Men In Black, Opie Taylor, Philadelphia, The Weather Dominator, Tom Hanks, Usain Bolt