It speaks volumes about a religion when the fevered fantasies of a no-account hack are decidedly more interesting than the accepted lies passing as truth. Any human being in control of his faculties (and not burdened by a crippling mental illness) long ago put Christianity in the same toy drawer with other, equally childish fables, but in the case of The Da Vinci Code, someone has at least concocted a story that has proven to be far more entertaining and action-packed. The original, less inspiring source is stuffed to its sanctimonious gills with bizarre claims, preposterous miracles, embarrassing pleas for brotherhood, and patent idiocy so illogical that were a man to read it verbatim in the public square – substituting “Joe” for “Jesus” – he would be stoned to death for his crimes against reason. And yet, millions of saps – some well-intentioned, but all scared to their cores of ceasing to exist – live their lives by precepts they could not possibly have given more than a passing glance, as they make about as much sense as the average George W. Bush press conference.

Dan Brown’s version of events, now ridiculed and challenged by “true believers” as blasphemy, still accepts that many of the figures of the Bible actually walked the earth, but refuses to stroll with them down the path of pre-destined immortality. According to Brown, Jesus lived, preached, and died on the cross, but before that gruesome end, slammed Mary Magdalene like a slab of veal, producing a female heir. This birth, which kept Christ’s DNA in the gene pool up to the present-day, has been systematically covered up by the Catholic Church, whose very existence would be called into question if the resurrection could be proven a lie. More than that, though, the papacy and its college of child-fucking cardinals, bishops, and priests object to any possibility that their Lord and Savior used his cock in a foul, procreative manner. Had Jesus rear-ended John the Baptist or sprayed holy seed in Pontius Pilate’s eye, perhaps Catholicism could have rested more comfortably with the revelation. The closest they’ve come to betraying their true sympathies is in the popular figure of the masculine, rippled Christ. You know, the unmistakably gay icon.

Brown’s book aside (which was not read by me), Ron Howard’s movie is, despite glaring holes and deplorable line deliveries, a first-class popcorn event; fun, silly, and brainless all at the same time. It’s a movie for simpletons and boobs, but if taken on that level, I could think of far worse ways to spend 2 ½ hours (like Mel Gibson’s beefcake torture chamber, for example). It’s a great ride, with all the standard elements of high-minded junk: villains lurking in the shadows, an intricate web of deceit and conspiracy, unabashed heroism, a plucky dame, a turncoat, family secrets, and speeding cars through narrow streets. Of course, the film could have been much shorter (again, it is assumed that length connotes importance), but it was never boring, despite long stretches of dialogue often groaning with their own weight. This is the kind of screenplay where a character will say: “We’re not cafeteria Catholics….We don’t pick and choose what scripture to follow.” In other words, nearly every line in this film says something everyone should understand (the definition of a “cafeteria Catholic”), and follows it with a re-statement of the obvious. If the characters were really as brain dead as they sounded, I highly doubt that a conspiracy would have ever been hatched, let alone uncovered, and the race for clues would have ended with the first scene.

Tom Hanks (as Robert Langdon) usually plays decent, all-American guys, but here he’s a goof; burdened by a childhood phobia (of course) and a tentativeness unattractive in anyone trying to appear dashing. His sidekick is Sophie (Audrey Tautou), the standard nitwit who is so wide-eyed and naive that it would not surprise us if she forgot her own name. True, her delivery, often sounding like a retard trying desperately to convey a point to a frustrated listener, is impacted by the fact that English is not her native tongue, but one cannot escape the often mindless words she was forced to memorize. Spencer Tracy at the peak of his powers could not have said them with conviction. And yet, there was a level of unexpected charm in the circus-like atmosphere of the film. Ron Howard is physically incapable of riding controversy from beginning to end, but for most of the film’s running time, I felt pleased by his dedication to the theories of the novel. The film, then, refuses to undermine us with irony while spinning through ruminations on God, Man, Christ, and Truth, even though I knew that Howard clenched his teeth each and every time there was a line that might alienate a potential customer. After all, Howard is arguably America’s most obsessively commercial filmmaker; a man who never strays far from apple pie and mom, reinforcing comforting, milquetoast values that are as lightweight as they are banal. But his box office tallies prove that he’s striking a chord, even if he’s guilty of the worst sort of pandering. Americans deserve a lot these days – beatings, lobotomies, forced abortions – but cheap flattery is not one of them. Where is the director who will rub their noses in depravity and filth, telling them how rotten they really are? Exactly – check the straight-to-video bargain bin.

There’s also Sir Ian McKellen as Sir Leigh Teabing (too eerily close to “teabag” for this viewer), easily the film’s juiciest role, as he gets to bite off elaborate monologues about the cover-up while stumbling about awkwardly with the use of canes. He’s so hammy, in fact, that he appears to be the only one having any fun, as if he alone understands that pulp is best served with lip-smacking relish. Using the shopworn devices of the genre, we know that he is not as he first appears, but it was encouraging to learn that his quest is not to stop the revelation, but ensure that it takes place at the most appropriate time. Yes, he wants to bring down the Church. In order to accomplish this task, he becomes the “Teacher”, using his vast wealth and influence to order around various agents of the conspiracy, all so that he can secure the clues to find the Holy Grail – not a cup, as legend has told us, but the bones of Christ’s beloved harlot. Once acquired, they will prove that a baby was brought forth from Mary’s womb, thereby transforming Jesus from the Son of God, Savior of Mankind, to just another father with bills to pay and diapers to change.

Because Howard is so aw-shucks earnest, the story itself remains credible in the context it has created. Jesus himself is a blatant invention, of course, but had such a man lived, there’s little doubt that an institution as corrupt, twisted, and greedy as the Catholic Church would have used every tool at its disposal – including murder – to cover up the truth of Christ’s life. Yes, we cry, each and every Pope would have sanctioned alterations, re-inventions, and secret societies to re-classify Magdalene as a cheap whore and womanhood as a sin on par with buggery. Opus Dei, a sinister group that does in fact exist (and, as far as we know, continues to work behind the scenes, spiriting off apple-cheeked young boys to weekend retreats for assorted assignations), is the black-hatted enemy of the story and, for once, a broad stereotype that meets with my wholehearted approval. Moreover, we are privileged to witness a priest get shot and a nun get slammed to the ground, both acts committed by a fanatical albino monk who engages in the ritual of self-flagellation. It wasn’t the assembly line of dismemberment and evisceration that I had hoped for, but it’s a start.

And since everyone knows the story – Da Vinci’s paintings as clues, the Louvre itself as the final resting place of Christ’s only known lay, the Knights of Templar, codes, anagrams, etc. – it isn’t necessary to say how faithful Howard was to the best-seller. I wouldn’t know, but it’s hard to imagine the book would have been even more graphic; otherwise, how are we to account for its popularity? I doubt, for example, that tens of millions of books would have been sold had there been an entire chapter devoted to Christ’s skills in the cunnilingus department. In fact, I’d wager that the book’s success has less to do with the religious controversy than with humanity’s almost instinctive love for treasure hunts. Still, it forces me to wonder whether I should be heartened by the embrace of anything – even fluff – that dares question the official bullshit. Even if the whole thing is less of a revolution overturning religion itself and more a crusade against Catholicism (similar to how more mainstream Christian sects marginalize Mormonism by calling it a “cult”, as if they’re something vastly different themselves), it still names names in a way few are willing to do anymore. We’ve gone so over the deep end concerning the respect for opinions that we now believe that everyone is entitled to throw his or her falsities and superstitions in the same ring as established, provable theories. So “intelligent design” becomes an alternative to Darwinian evolution; much in the way that they would have “God’s infinite hands” in the same paragraph explaining gravity. So yes, blast the garishly-robed mafia in Rome, but not to the extent that we forget that ALL believers in Jesus are unsightly weeds in the same schizophrenic garden.