The Da Vinci Quandry: How being a waifish French actress can get you through anything.

Or, how you know when it's time to stop picking on Academy Award winners.
The Da Vinci Code arrived this summer to absolutely no critical acclaim whatsoever, as critics across the nation grabbed pitchforks and lit torches with a ferocity no one had seen since, well, The Passion of the Christ. But when it came time to point the finger at someone for the troubling lack of excitement in the film, the critics instead spent the last half of their articles lauding director Ron Howard for his "good instincts." They called him a "maestro," applauding the way he "keeps the narrative taut," and mentioning how solid all filmmaking is when it's in his hands. The reviews that ripped Code the hardest didn't even mention Howard's involvement in the film, which seems a fairly large oversight considering he was the one who directed it.

Stars Tom Hanks and Audrey Tatou also faired reasonably well, as reviews generally referred to Hanks as "sympathetic," "funny," and "immensely watchable," and a good half of them reminded everyone that Hanks is our "most likeable actor." Tatou, the world's most marketable French actress, struggles with her English throughout the film and elicts not a scrap of chemistry with Hanks, an actor capable of having fantastic chemistry with virtually all actresses, most actors, and some dogs. Yet most reviews compliment her excellent screen presence in a "difficult role." In the end of it, about four out of five reviewers pan the movie without ever really placing blame anywhere except on the mediocrity of Dan Brown's writing style. Which really, when you think about it, shouldn't have that much effect on a screenplay.

What gives?

Follow me down the rabbit hole. In 2002, Ron Howard won the Best Director Oscar for his work on A Beautiful Mind, defeating Robert Altman, Peter Jackson, Ridley Scott, and David Lynch. Critics went ballistic, calling Howard a hack and poking fun at everything about him, from the fact that he used to be "Opie" to the fact that he's bald. They reminded readers that this was the same director who made How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and EDtv, and that it was an insult to the Academy to make Howard "Best Director." Years later, they would still bring it up in articles when they got the chance.

But then Howard disappeared for a few years, and when he appeared again with The Missing, no one went to see it, even though it got mediocre to decent reviews. And critics started to feel a little bad. That maybe they'd worked so hard to push him off his pedestal that he'd never get up again. A few years later, Cinderella Man came out. Critics lauded it to the heavens, mentioning what heart Howard had as a director, and reminding everyone that this was they guy who made Apollo 13. But still, hardly anyone went to see it.

So when The Da Vinci Code finally came out, critics pulled all their punches and looked for other targets. But they couldn't blame the actors, either, for the same reasons. Hanks was the man that they'd slagged years earlier when he was up for his third "Best Actor" prize at the 2001 Academy Awards. They'd called him "undeserving," and tried to sway the vote the other way, even though it was clear that his work on Cast Away qualified him for the award. The problem wasn't that he didn't deserve it, rather the critics were loathe to award him a third prize, since that make him the only actor ever to have acquired that many, and they "weren't ready to declare him the greatest actor of all time." And so Russell Crowe won instead. And the critics felt guilty. And Hanks has been given a free pass ever since.

In the same way, no critic was ready to ridicule Tatou since they'd already spent so much of their time trying to get people to go see her other movies (over 75% of reviews written mentioned that Tatou was excellent in Amélie). So every reviewer was left with the hating the collective whole while praising the sum of its parts. An unusual review, to be sure.

So let's break this down: Ron Howard won the Best Director Oscar, which put him in the doghouse with critics because that meant that the general public had a better opinion of him than the critics thought they should. But when he started releasing movies to no public acclaim, critics began to raise their voices in support of him, thinking he'd sunk too far (which is why Cinderella Man got much better reviews on DVD than in theatres - not that the film was any better, but rather that not enough people had gone to see it). And so when he released a movie that the critics hated, he got a free pass. The Da Vinci Code was his Free Film.

Where Howard goes from here is tricky, though. If he makes an excellent film as his next film, critics will swoon and mention how "revitalized" he is after the mess of Da Vinci. But if he makes another clunker - or, worse, a Da Vinci sequel - he'll be in trouble. Because he's already used his free film.

Next up: the flip side.