‘Angels’ Shines a Light on Ron Howard’s Filmmaking Faults

We couldn’t help ourselves. Watching “Angels & Demons,” we started thinking about all those great American artists who have rendered the ordinary in such luminous light, we never look at reality quite the same again. We refer to the likes of Norman Rockwell, Ansel Adams, Steven Spielberg and Andy Warhol, whose representations of a kids’ […]

Last Updated: May 14, 2009 @ 9:50 PM

We couldn’t help ourselves. Watching “Angels & Demons,” we started thinking about all those great American artists who have rendered the ordinary in such luminous light, we never look at reality quite the same again.

We refer to the likes of Norman Rockwell, Ansel Adams, Steven Spielberg and Andy Warhol, whose representations of a kids’ basketball game, the Yosemites, suburbia, or tomato soup cans have forever changed our perspectives on those seemingly commonplace subjects.

So why were we drifting into such lofty reveries when we were supposed to be enjoying Ron Howard’s ecclesiastical thriller?

Because Howard — consciously or subconsciously — clearly aspires to being part of this school of endeavor: to render the ordinary, well, extraordinary.

He, too, wants to make us see the familiar in a special light. And secondly, any random day-dream seemed more rewarding than paying full-bore attention to this dizzying, murky adaptation of the Dan Brown bestseller.

In this feverishly paced — read “incoherent” — treasure hunt of a drama, American symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) and comely scientist sidekick (Ayelet Zurer) try to head off a terrorist conspiracy in Rome to murder four cardinals.

As Langdon crisscrosses the city, trying to catch an anti-clerical group known as the Illuminati, he’s followed by an international gaggle of cops, detectives, cardinals and Vatican inner circle-istas. (The Euro-cast includes Ewan McGregor, Stellan Skarsgård, Armin Mueller-Stahl and Danish arthouse star Nikolaj Lie Kaas.)

Admittedly, trying to repurpose Brown’s exposition-clotted book into the kind of star-centered action vehicle that will make money is an almost satirical task. (You try explaining the Illuminati’s evolution from intellectual refugees to vengeful guerillas as your Alfa Romeo hurtles towards the Piazza del Popolo.)

But this movie takes that transmogrification way too far.

All of the big ideas that made the book so engaging — smashing protons at warp speed to create anti-matter, the growth of the Illuminati, the fascinating intersection between science and religion — are represented in guttural, virtually unintelligible smatterings of dialogue.

Clearly, Howard and company have no intention of actual illumination, just flooring the narrative pedal. They streamline “Angels & Demons” into a sort of atmospheric Hollywood banality. Cue the migraine-inducing, restless camerawork that has already become so “Bourne” yesterday. Cue those disembodied choral voices on the soundtrack that suggest edgy angels doing Hollywood contract work on the side.

Howard is an accomplished craftsman, a master technician. But he’ll always be the promising grad student who can never quite become the masters he reveres; who is doomed to pitch-perfect but secondhand imitations of his elders. He’s so immersed in the Esperanto of moviemaking — an artificial language unto itself — he’s incapable of taking that direct gaze at life so he can evoke it personally.

He seems to see everything through a prism of union schedules, test-marketing surveys, casting decisions and Oscar contention pie charts. Do we ever know what beats in Opie’s chest when we watch his movies? If he called in sick one day, wouldn’t it matter if some well-briefed second in command ran that day’s shooting?

Even his finest works, such as “The Paper,” “Parenthood” and “A Beautiful Mind,” are stirring only for their ersatz ring of familiarity. They don’t smack of the real thing. They suggest earlier, better movies that — in the heat of the viewing moment — we can’t quite summon to mind. Unlike the aforementioned artists, he doesn’t imitate life. He imitates previous imitations.

Never did the term “lip service” seem to fit more aptly.