esides the fact that it's not terribly interesting, Sandra
Bullock's "Murder by Numbers" offers us a premise that looks as if it
has been lifted from an old episode of "Columbo". The big idea here is
that two unlikely high school teens -- spoiled rich kid Richard (Ryan Gosling)
and weirdo loner Justin (Michael Pitt) -- have teamed up to discover the joys of
killing. After the duo kills a woman, they believe they've committed the perfect
crime; besides planting evidence, they've also successfully framed the school
But of course, just as it was the case in
"Columbo", this is not a movie about killers getting away scot free,
it's about killers who thinks they've gotten away, until they meet their match
in a clever detective. Instead of an old L.A.P.D. Homicide Detective in a
wrinkled coat and puffing on a cigar, the Homicide cop here is Cassie Mayweather
(Sandra Bullock). Cassie has such a tough reputation that her male counterparts
refer to her as "The Hyena". This name was given to Cassie because, as
Cassie informs her rookie partner Sam (Ben Chaplin), female hyenas have a
protrusion on their body that resembles a penis. By way of association, they're
saying that Cassie acts more like a man than a woman.
The whole Cassie-as-man-in-woman's-skin isn't completely
without reason, and writer Tony Gayton and director Barbet Schroeder goes out of
their way to introduce us to Cassie's history, which also explains why she
became a cop in the first place. Of course doesn't actually explain why Cassie
acts more like a chauvinistic pig in woman's clothing than she does an actual
human being. For example, after a night of sex with Sam, Cassie kicks him out of
bed and tells him to get lost. The film gives numerous reasons for Cassie's
present state of mind and behavior by way of a series of lengthy and
wholeheartedly tedious flashbacks. I suppose the filmmakers feel her behavior is
justified, but I don't buy it.
Back to the murder mystery. The film opens and closes with
Richard and Justin making a pact to kill someone so they can be true "free
men." Oh, and there's a whole big hubbub about how the two boys indulge in
unfulfilled homoeroticism attraction for one another. This is supposed to be a
big deal, I guess. By the film's end, we're supposed to care who was really in
charge of the plan. Was it the spoiled Richard, who has always had everything
his way? Or was it the quiet Leonardo DiCaprio-look-alike Justin, who may be
falling in love with a female classmate and regaining his conscience.
Try as they might, neither Ryan Gosling nor Michael Pitt,
despite being terrific young actors, could make me really care about their
fates. I could care less if these two kids "got away with it" or
"is smarter than the cops" or a number of other questions that the
movie raises, all for naught. This is mostly the fault of Schroeder and his
editor; the two men do such a poor job of intercutting between the killers'
contested relationship and Cassie's investigation, that no momentum is ever
achieved. The movie feels flat. Also, there are simply too many threads
running at once, with the biggest problem being that not a single one of them is
interesting enough in itself to construct a film around.
As to the investigation into the murder? A complete
snorefest. There's nothing here to make you sit up and notice. Nothing that
hasn't been done in countless other cop movies. I also take exception with
Cassie's wardrobe. Because she walks and talks like a hardened "male"
cop, she wears black almost exclusively. And don't get me started on that black
leather jacket. I expected more from screenwriter Tony Gayton, who turned in a
terrific story in the far superior "The
Salton Sea" with Val Kilmer. Where's the originality in "Murder by
The only saving grace of "Murder by Numbers" is a
20-minute segment near the end when Cassie and Sam brings both teens into the
precinct and interviews them individually, trying to get them to turn on each
other. This sequence offers the film's best moments, but unfortunately even that
scene is plague with terrible gaping plot holes and large leaps of logic by the
heroes. For the last hour and a half, Cassie and Sam are clueless about the
murder, but suddenly -- eureka! -- they have everything figured out. It's a
stretch, to be sure.
I commend Sandra Bullock for wanting to do something other
than the usual romantic comedy. The problem is, "Murders by Numbers"
is a poor choice to showcase more than silliness. Bullock's Cassie struts around
like a tough cop, but when push comes to shove, she fades like a shrinking
violet. Consider a scene where Ryan Gosling's Richard intimidates her while
she's sitting in her car. Pathetic doesn't begin to describe Bullock's version
of tough cop in this scene. If you're going to play the part, then play it all
the way through. Consistency does matter.
Now that I think about it, that old episode of
"Columbo" was much more entertaining than this big-budget movie by a
wide margin. Not only was that episode a lot more clever, but even as a 2-hour
episode it still seemed much shorter than this bloated misfire.