By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood May 5, 2009 at 6:03AM
Most studio movies aim at your pleasure center; they're not trying to challenge your brain. But Ron Howard, like Steven Spielberg, is that rare studio hybrid--the quality/commercial filmmaker who likes to turn out both mass-audience blockbusters and Oscar contenders.
Rarely the twain shall meet, as Howard learned the hard way three years ago when, seeking film fest validation, he and his producing partner Brian Grazer made the mistake of opening Cannes with The Da Vinci Code, adapted from Dan Brown's bestseller. The Sony brass took the train down from Paris, only to see the global press corps take a dump on the movie--before it went on to earn $757 million worldwide. Clearly the follow-up Angels & Demons doesn't need a festival boost before it hits theaters May 15. (Here's Todd McCarthy's review.)
Howard promised me that this one was more fun than the first. They were hampered in that case by having to step gingerly around some of the book's serious Christian subject matter. (Figuring out how to dress Hanks' virginal sidekick Audrey Tautou was a nightmare.) This time, Howard and his writers, David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman, pull out the stops for a rollicking, over-scale, implausibly good time.
Don't get me wrong. Angels & Demons is in many ways a terrible movie. Tom Hanks deserves every dollar he got paid for keeping a straight face as he spews out reams of clunky expository dialogue, often at top speed on the run. But I was expertly manipulated, first by the scary possibilities of explosive anti-matter created before our eyes by super-colliders--and then stolen. Next, there's a dead Pope. Was he killed? And four kidnapped and threatened preferiti. Is it the Illuminati? The mystery must be solved before the anti-matter explodes. And the race against time is on.
Going behind the scenes of the Vatican during Conclave is cool, like movies about presidents in the Oval Office, or The Queen. These are secret places where great decisions are made--requiring scads of computer graphics. As Stellan Skarsgard and Armin Mueller-Stahl try to impede stalwart academic sleuth Robert Langdon (Hanks), Ewan McGregor is more helpful as the Vatican's Camerlengo (at one point that word made people in my screening giggle).
When my date and I tried to piece the plot together afterwards we gave up. This entertaining summer popcorn movie is so bad it's good. Or at least a guilty pleasure.
Here's the trailer: