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Murder By Numbers

  Murder By Numbers
Sandra Bullock looks for a script.

© 2002, Warner Bros.
All Rights Reserved

Though I would hate myself in the end, I am tempted to push for people to see "Murder By Numbers" (IMDb listing), if only to help me out. I feel audiences need to watch a film of this caliber and ask themselves just why in the world a movie like this would get made? I've already sat through the picture, and for the life of me, I cannot figure out what purpose this dreadful film was produced for.

Cassie Mayweather (Sandra Bullock) is a tough homicide detective with a shady past involving a potential parolee that has come back to haunt her. Enter Richard (Ryan Gosling, the latest flavor of the month from "The Believer") and Justin (Michael Pitt, "Hedwig And The Angry Inch"), two disaffected but intelligent high school kids who have decided to murder an innocent woman just to see if they can get away with it. Cassie is assigned the case, and with the help of her new partner (Ben Chaplin, "Birthday Girl"), tries to find a way to make the two youngsters confess. But as Cassie digs deeper into the case, the lies, backstabbing and her own emotional fragility come to block her concentration, and the comfortable isolation womb she's made for herself breaks in the process.

Ok, so it's not that hard to figure out just how "Murder By Numbers" got the greenlight. Sandra Bullock, tired of her Meg Ryan-like career in romantic comedies, wanted something meatier and more demanding of her audience to play with. And since "Numbers" is a straight-ahead forensics thriller, it must have looked like the perfect way to stretch her acting muscles. However, Bullock should thank her lucky stars if her career survives this pathetic excuse for drama. A television pilot dressed up as a feature film, "Murder By Numbers" has no subtlety to the filmmaking, or anything even slightly interesting going on to separate it from the rest of the pack. I praised "High Crimes" last week for loving its clichéd self, trudging ahead and making the best of what it had. "Numbers" doesn't have the sense or the script to do this. It's slow and deliberate, but without any reasonable story to back up its own lethargic self. It's like watching paint dry, and when something resembling action (either emotional or physical) happens on screen, it's usually in the guise of a plot twist or scene either so out of context or completely lacking in believability that it just dies right in front of your eyes.

Having never been a true Bullock fan, her work in "Numbers" is predictably aggravating if only because it's so transparent. It's rare to come across an actress so willing to appear in films well beneath her talent. Written like a high-school play by Tony Gayton, there is nothing subtle to any character's backstory, especially Cassie's. She's the tough, hardened cop that is crying out for love and healing, and Bullock plays her exactly like this. She removes the mystery of the character by playing the role so broadly, with arms swinging and that "can't you see I'm emotionally wounded!" look on her face for the entire run of the show.

The rest of the cast fares even worse, ranging from Ben Chaplin's impression of a brick wall to Michael Pitt and Ryan Gosling's overextending, "Actor's Studio" interpretations of Justin and Richard. Modeled after the infamous killers Leopold and Loeb, Pitt and Gosling (who's nothing but raised eyebrows and smirks) don't portray their arrogant, inquisitive characters as the demons they are, but opt for sweaty drama queens who looked as if they just stepped out of the latest "T-NBC" Saturday morning television show. It's such a waste, but in the end, I found it hard to blame the two acting newbies, as Gayton barely constructs motives for the duo. They just "kind of" come up with a plan, they "could" be homosexually linked and one of them "might" regret the murderous act. Nothing about the pair is ever laid out in definite terms, so they convey about as much threat as a paper cut.

And if you can stomach a nit-pick for a minute, one scene features Richard confronting Cassie on her investigation by stealing her phone away from her and nearly assaulting her in the process. So why doesn't Cassie arrest the punk then and there? We wouldn't have much a movie, I understand that, but this scene is a titanic miscalculation in a sea of ineptitude. You even blink wrong at a street cop in the real world and you're in prison faster than you can say "cataract," but a teenager committing theft and coming to blows with a homicide detective, and she doesn't say a word? Well...hooray for Hollywood I guess.

Director Barbet Schroeder has made some nice genre vehicles in the past ("Kiss Of Death," "Reversal Of Fortune") but his instincts have left the building with "Murder By Numbers." The picture gets away from Schroeder right out of the gate, and all he can do is hang on for dear life. I keep reading that you can't tell how a film will play until you put it all together, but "Numbers" is so horrible that I'm beginning to think that is just an excuse for bad directors to hide behind.

Maybe it was producer/star Sandra Bullock who was convinced that this actor's-dream-script (re: searing dramatic monologues and motivations as big as Texas) was the perfect thing for all concerned. Maybe it all went wrong in the editing room. I can't quite put my finger on it, but be assured that if you decide to partake in "Murder By Numbers" it is actually you who will be the victim of a heinous—albeit cinematic—crime.

Filmfodder Grade: F

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