by Jack Sommersby
One of the laziest, underdeveloped, sophomoric psychological thrillers ever to disgrace the silver screen. Anemic acting and lethargic directing make this both a trial and tribulation to sit through. Sandra Bullock, who was completely winning in the underrated Miss Congeniality, should stick to a genre she's fit for.Having given an outstanding performance as a tomboy-ish FBI agent in the buoyant and bright Miss Congeniality, I had hope that Sandra Bullock (previously an acquired taste with this reviewer) had realized her dramatic limitations and saw fit to partake in films that required lucid emotionalism in small quantities in scarce instances. If the moronic The Net and ludicrous In Love and War hadn't already validated her lack of depth and range as an actress, then the preachy, pandering-down-to rehab drama 28 Days certainly did. Bullock's got charisma and an alert reserve which occasionally gives her an edge with one-liners, but she essentially lacks the variety and internal resources needed to suggest more of a character than what's been written. Freed up without being bound to act "serious", she was funny and loose and ingratiating in Miss Congeniality; she also beautifully underplayed the character's loneliness without italicizing it. Like Renee Zellweger in last year's Bridget Jones's Diary, Bullock started with the woman and worked her way up to the character's eccentricities, rather than starting with the latter and forsaking the former in typical Julia Roberts fashion. So it's all the more unfortunate that Bullock has regressed back to her naive self by executive-producing and casting herself as a determined homicide detective in Murder by Numbers, a film that not only offers up a terminally vacant lead performance by its star, but is nothing short of a catastrophic disaster.
What we have here are two smart and savvy high-schoolers, Richard Haywood (Ryan Gosling) and Justin Pendleton (Michael Pitts), both from affluent families in a small coastal Northern California community, going out and committing "the perfect murder" for the sheer hell of it to see if they can get away with it, and to prove their moral superiority in the process. The way the filmmakers present it, they're the victims of neglectful parenting and soulless materialism, where credit cards and expensive cars are God-entitled givens, and love and compassion are nothing more than commodities to be brokered off and embraced by the middle and lower classes -- the suckers of the world. Nothing new here on a thematic basis to be sure, and neither on a contextual one either. Like Larry Clark's Bully, this is another film that exploits the visceral details of a heinous crime instead of tackling the social implications behind it. Since the teens' moral sense is stunted and shallow, their home lives are predictably depicted in a bland and impersonal decor to mirror and reflect upon this. This is elemental interpretation at best, it's lazy, and merely represents rather than incisively presents a probing, disturbing picture of an ever-increasing side of Americana gone horribly awry. And to prove there's not a cliched stone unturned here, the screenwriter, Tony Gayton, has given the character of Justin, the conscience-stricken one of the two, a fresh-faced girlfriend, Lisa (Agnes Bruckner), who not only lives in a small apartment, but is an artist as well. (She's depicted as a life-loving Plain Jane intended to convey "purity.")
Unfortunately, their pursuer, Bullock's Cassie Mayweather (no, I didn't make the name up), isn't any more alluring or interesting. Conjuring up memories of Bruce Willis' washed-up cop in Striking Distance, Cassie lives on a houseboat isolated from the mainstream, so we know she's toiling over internal demons. Clad in black with a mood to match, Cassie's good at her job but has become so embittered not only at life in general but at her fellow officers that no one wants to work with her anymore. So it's not too surprising that Cassie's new partner, Sam (Ben Chaplin), looks uneasy. At first, we think it's his exposure to corpses after having transferred over from Vice (in this small town?!), but we soon see he has no idea how to relate to Cassie; she's the quintessential closed-off loner, acknowledging those only when she needs something. Bits and pieces of a violent event from Cassie's past are served up via flashbacks, but they serve no real purpose except as teaser trailers leading up to a ho-hum revelation that contributes nothing substantial to the story and gives new meaning to the term "excess baggage". And Bullock's performance is depressingly one-note. In going for the dramatic badge of honor she's sublimated her comic instincts and fresh appeal for the sake of attempting to be taken seriously as an actress; but Bullock's range is considerably limited, so the built-in negatives of the part are only compounded.
Flawed characterizations are always a liability in a film, but the severity of them depends mostly on the type of film they're incorporated within. If it's a trashy action or horror film, then the damage is usually minimal; a comedy, a little more so; in a drama, considerably more. But in what's been intended as a psychological thriller, the result is simply devastating -- especially since the story is essentially character-oriented and -driven. We're supposed to be enthralled by these cunning teens toying with Cassie, anticipating her next moves and foretelling the forensic evidence they've purposely left behind. They've framed the school janitor (a wasted Christopher Penn) for the crime, but have it fixed where the police will initially suspect them; they get a kick, a real rush out of manipulating people and coming close to danger with a safety net made out of well-thought-out wit. When Cassie informs Richard that the expensive boots he reported stolen are tied to the murder scene, Richard daunts, "Are you saying the person who stole my boots is mixed up in this?" But good moments like this are way too far and few between. For the most part, we couldn't care less about the characters, so the actors have a tough time justifying their presence and commanding our attention, with the badly constructed screenplay unwisely revealing what the villains are up to before Cassie gets wise, which saps the story of any immediacy. If the hero(ine)-villain match-up here was infused with tension (as the one composed of Andy Garcia and Richard Gere in the Internal Affairs was), then the mind games being played out would provide some fascination. They don't, so the story essentially has no backbone, nothing to fall back on, and the flaws, therefore, are even more glaring.
After having vomited at the body-dumping site (the body belonging to a twentysomething woman picked out on a whim), would the whiz-kid Justin just leave it there for Forensics to dabble over instead of simply cleaning it up? The janitor has been set up as the patsy and is killed at his hideaway later on, but it's only by sheer luck that he spies the detectives speaking to Richard at school, otherwise he'd have had no reason to flee, the police would have picked him up when they intended, and the case would have been cracked in no time. When Cassie's shooting it out with Richard at the end and they wind up in separate rooms, he announces he only has one bullet left and fires, Cassie suspects suicide, and then goes over to investigate. Hasn't she seen more than five films of this type where the villain isn't really dead and will sure as hell come up behind you for acting the fool? And after a cordial romance develops between Justin and Lisa, for no discernible reason, she jumps into the sack with the callous Richard, Justin finds out and calls her a slut, she slaps him and walks away, and then during the final quarter she suddenly becomes his ally, and all so she can make a crucial phone call to Cassie so the final confrontation can happen. Not only is this tacky, but screenwriter Gayton violates a cardinal rule of drama: instead of resolving a conflict, he dissolves it, removing the implications behind it. There's even a "Boo!" moment to be had when an animal jumps out of nowhere, startling the heroine -- which, in this case, turns out to be a baboon (Don't ask).
Perhaps if a director like, say, Joseph Ruben, whose thrillers The Stepfather and True Believer were stylish, taut and seamless, had taken the reins, just maybe he'd have been able to help glide the story over some of the many inconsistencies. Alas, the director is Barbet Schroeder, who demonstrated with the sub-par 1995 Kiss of Death remake and the 1998 howler Desperate Measures a complete incompetence at eliciting and sustaining suspense. When working on a smaller scale, like 1987's magical Barfly or 1990's Oscar-winning Reversal of Fortune, Schroeder can transport you to a specific time and place with masterly ease that exudes texture and authenticity; whether it's the seedy ski-row L.A. streets or the posh seaside Rhode Island estates, here's a director who can conjure up the kind of rich atmosphere that clings. And being that the central characters' lives he was depicting were more or less aimless (Mickey Rourke's drunken poet Henry Chinaski, and Jeremy Irons' pompously aloof Claus Von Bulow), Schroeder's problems with pacing and narrative drive weren't so noticeable -- they matched up with the characters' off-kilter social and behavioral rhythms. But Kiss of Death ended up as a series of stops and starts, while Desperate Measures couldn't generate enough in the way of tempo to get over its numerous improbability hurdles.
With Murder by Numbers, Schroeder's work is simply lacking and, worse, impersonal, as if he needed to make a house payment, agreed to this sorry state of affairs, and decided to carry things out in the most perfunctory manner possible. He doesn't seem to have even interpreted the material, much less expounded upon it to create a vision of his own; we're kept at an aesthetic distance from the story, never horrified at the horrifics, because the director himself seems distant and indifferent to what he's presenting before us. And the film has the same narrative inertness as Schroeder's Before and After, which, too, dealt with teenagers and murder, and, like Numbers, is so frustrating in its failure to suitably involve you on a responsive level that it practically zonks you right out. With a cat-and-mouse game developing between Cassie and the villains, our innards should be constricting into a knot, and the disturbing implications of the material should make us dread the scenes to come. Again, there's no propulsion to the story, the police procedurals and forensic details are strictly ho-hum, and the villains fail to enthrall (they might as well have robbed their school's bakery sale for all we care). Not helping matters are Schroeder's unremarkable, tv-style compositions, which make little or no creative use of space; there's a cramped-up feel to each and every one, as if the director were the ultimate anal-retentive fuddy-duddy mortified at the mere thought of framing a shot with pancahe. (Alas, the great cinematographer Luciano Tovoli's talents are wasted -- except during the finale, where he finally gets to strut his stuff.)
As was also the case with the deplorable Panic Room, Murder by Numbers teases us with a tantalizing story premise yet fails to develop and follow through on it, leaving us with fifteen minutes of a passable appetizer and then an hour and a half of a substandard entree. And it's something so much worse than just bad: it's downright incompetent -- and thoroughly so, on just about every conceivable level (excepting, possibly, the production design: while the actors occupying space aren't convincing, the interesting sets and artifacts surrounding them are). Instead of originality, we get retreads of cliches we've grown ever so wary of, along with direct steals from other films of its type, like In Cold Blood, where we're supposed to buy that the more vicious of the villains is the actual murderer when in fact it's the meeker of them. If you think I've spoiled some grand revelation, don't fret because after seeing Richard throw a towel over their tied-up victim's face rather than look at it, a mental alarm goes off, and you'd have to be blind not to pick up on its significance later.
Just what kind of film was Murder by Numbers designed to function as? A psychological thriller, right? But it hasn't been constructed and engineered with any dramatic depth or intensity. A character study? The villains are bland and their motives Psych 101 stuff, with Cassie no more complex than a stock cop character in one of those boo-hiss shows to be found on a high-numbered UHF channel. A timely mediation on the decaying sense of principles and decency in today's youth? Like the characters, depth and insight are in short supply, with trumped-up generalizations in full stock. Of course, the film tires to be all three, so instead of failing miserably as one thing, it triples its friendly-fire casualties. Yet it's so devoid of creativity and identity that it's hard to despise it as much as you'd like -- getting angry at it, showing it just an iota of emotion, would be giving it more emotion than it gives you. Still, it's so incredibly negligible and downright ineffectual that it gives you a newfound respect for mediocrity.Advice: Catch an episode of tv's "CSI" instead.
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originally posted: 12/12/02 09:46:52