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'Murder by Numbers'

Perils of Sandra keep 'Murder by Numbers' interesting

Friday, April 19, 2002

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Movie Critic

To paint by numbers requires staying within the lines. To "Murder by Numbers" -- even more so. Two spoiled-brat California high school kids (is there any other kind?) would seem to be up to the task, except for the fact that they hate each other.

'Murder By Numbers'

RATING: R for language, violence and brief nudity

STARRING: Sandra Bullock, Ben Chaplin, Ryan Gosling

DIRECTOR: Barbet Schroeder

WEB SITE: murderbynumbers



Brilliant, nerdy Justin (Michael Pitt) and cool, rich Richard (Ryan Gosling) share mutual hostility in their English class by day -- but a fireside glass of absinthe by night. What fresh hell could they be cooking up?

Detective Sandra Bullock wonders the same when they become prime suspects in a grisly murder case (is there any other kind?), to which our boys have all sorts of obvious connections -- so obvious, they couldn't possibly be the real culprits.

Gum-chewin' Sandra and her rookie partner Sam (Ben Chaplin), in turn, have all the obvious things that movie cop partners are required to have -- cynicism and sincerity, attitude and naivete, wisecracks and wisdom. Bullock exhibits all the persistence but none of the sweetness of "Fargo's" Marge. The chip on her shoulder is the size of Rhode Island and conveys mega-mixed messages to her partner on and off the job: After seducing him against his better ethical judgment, she promptly shoves him out of bed.

Why so mercurial? Because she's a victim of past horrors and current police-film conventions: She gets too involved emotionally. She gets taken off the case when another suspect, the school janitor (Chris Penn), is framed like the black school janitor on "Mary Hartman" (a Marvin Gaye album planted at the crime scene).

It's enough to make anyone prickly. But it explains why she's a master at cat-and-mouse bantering with Gosling as charming Richard, himself a master in pursuit of mistress Sandra.

No goose of an actor is Gosling, charismatic from first to last. His only overtly villainous trait, true to today's aforementioned cinematic conventions, is the fact that he's a smoker -- but that may or may not mean he's the real villain, any more than Michael Pitt with his strange ways and feminine hairdo. (For those keeping nepotistic score, Pitt is no relation to Brad, but seedy-looking Chris Penn is Sean's brother.)

Bullock? Love her and her unique, low-key, whispery delivery in this part. Ben Chaplin? As good and committed to his role here as he was in the recently wonderful "Birthday Girl" with Nicole Kidman.

Iranian-born Barbet Schroeder, maker of the brilliant "Reversal of Fortune" and "Idi Amin Dada" documentary as well as the dubious "Before and After" and disastrous "Desperate Measures," is an inconsistent director, and this is an inconsistent picture. But Tony Gayton's script, based on the protagonists' theory that "every free act is a crime: crime is freedom," is carefully stitched together to touch on such hot issues as parental permissiveness, homophobic misogyny, Klebold and Harris, Leopold and Loeb, crime and punishment -- et al. sublime and ridiculous.

Not since "Perils of Pauline" has the term "cliffhanger" been replicated so literally as in the finale. In which regard, we may conclude that the perils of Sandra in "Murder by Numbers" are increasingly engaging if decreasingly believable.

Why that baboon?

Well might you ask. It is one of life's -- and this film's -- many unanswered questions.

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