|Murder by Numbers
2002 - R - 121 Mins.
|Director: Barbet Schroeder
|Producer: Barbet Schroeder
|Written By: Tony Gayton
|Starring: Sandra Bullock, Ben Chaplin, Ryan Gosling, Michael Pitt, Chris Penn
|Review by: Harrison Cheung
MURDER BY NUMBERS is a strange hybrid movie that entertains on many levels. Hybrid - like the Hollywood-fashionable Toyota Prius that runs on both gas and electric engines.
First of all, the gas - it's a Sandra Bullock movie which means mainstream accessibility. Bullock, anxious to shed her goody-goody image, goes for more range here in this clever movie-length version of a CSI episode. Playing a bitter alcoholic cop with a dark past, Bullock is involved in a murder investigation and major police department bickering with her boss. For those who've seen 28 DAYS (not the British horror movie), Bullock plays a messy drunk.
But the flip side of MURDER BY NUMBERS is practically an electric indie film where (and this is not a spoiler), two above-average high school students, studying from every cop's forensics text books, have seemingly committed the perfect murder, planting clues to point to another suspect. The two are smart, nihilistic, and suffering from a major dose of over-confidence and arrogance.
When these two movies meet, MURDER BY NUMBERS becomes a contest between brains - Bullock's sloppy, emotional and instinctive mind versus the two arrogant and coldly calculating students. It's an engaging concept but we've been down this path before with old TV cop shows - remember the likes of MANNIX, BARNABY JONES, FBI, CANNON? All Quinn Martin productions where we see the murder take place and spend the rest of the show watching the murderer try to misdirect the detective.
It's too bad the two sides of the movie are so unevenly matched.
On the police side, Bullock is backed by the gray and uninteresting Ben Chaplin, who is the worst cop partner I've ever seen in the movies. Perhaps a bit of reverse discrimination, Bullock gets to treat him like crap - and the character suffers for it! Chaplin's sole function in the movie is to be Bullock's love interest as he meekly endures what would qualify asl major sexual harrassment on the job. As far as Bullock's plans for demonstrating range, the results are mixed. She plays one ugly drunk but, in the most uncomfortable scene in the movie, Bullock seems absolutely perverted when she's making a pass while inebriated.
On the students' side are 2 very impressive young actors. Ryan Gosling, who delivered searing performances in THE BELIEVER and THE SLAUGHTER RULE (see my reviews on site), plays a rich, handsome extrovert. Michael Pitt, another indie star from HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH and BULLY, (who seems to be America's answer to Jonathan Rhys-Meyers with his androgynous looks), is the gothy dark poet with the science bent. These 2 warped best friends have a seriously intense relationship, replete with a suicide pact, glasses of absynthe, and more than a hint of homoerotic undercurrents. It is by far the more interesting relationship in the movie. And in light of Columbine and other recent high school tragedies, it's not hard to imagine these 2 personality types at any school.
Directed by Barbet Schroeder (best known for SINGLE WHITE FEMALE), the screen comes alive only when Bullock clashes with the cock-of-the-walk Gosling or when Gosling spars with Pitt. There are a few logic flaws in the movie and the ending is standard formula - it's a shame that the writer didn't go for some shocking plot twists - but overall MURDER BY NUMBERS satisfies as a interesting detective thriller if not a whodunit since we know from the beginning who did.