Murder by Numbers
Director: Barbet Schroeder. Cast: Sandra Bullock, Ryan Gosling, Michael Pitt, Ben Chaplin, Agnes Bruckner, Chris Penn, Michael Samluk. Screenplay: Tony Gayton.

Why even make a movie if you're going to wind up calling it Murder by Numbers? That kind of title just begs the material to overcome it, and this potboiler—a fourth- or fifth-generation recasting of the Leopold/Loeb scandal, this time starring Sandra Bullock as the culprits' committed, no-bull detective—is simply not up to the challenge. Formulaic, morose, chock-full of the same airless compositions and dialogue scenes that so often weigh down Barbet Schroeder's forays into B-level noir, Murder by Numbers feels totally redundant except insofar as it perpetuates a few trends in mainstream moviegoing that are worth noting. One of them, as indicated by the fact that the Leopold and Loeb stand-ins are no longer full adults or even élitist undergraduates but actual high school students, is that Hollywood no longer deems it necessary to carry its protagonists past the legal drinking age in order to unsettle their sexualities, amplify their awareness of class resentments, and furnish them with arcane knowledge about homicide, forensics, and mutilation that one used to need an FBI badge to acquire. No doubt the producers of Murder by Numbers could offer some bromide about Columbine High School in the hope of lending this film more seriousness than it deserves, or needs. But considering the age difference between late-thirties Bullock and her teenage perps, Murder by Numbers picks up where Teaching Mrs. Tingle and the remarkable O have recently left off: an obsession with the notion that faux-sophisticated, precocious, sexually liberated adolescents are not just an annoyance but a breeding ground of invidious horror.

And speaking of the producers, Bullock is one of them, as she has been for so many of her recent projects: Hope Floats, Gun Shy, 28 Days, Miss Congeniality. I am not only encouraged to see a female actor preserving such control and investment in her work, but intrigued all the more by the consistent mediocrity of the work. Bullock is starting to remind me of a softened, less revolutionary but more prolific Ida Lupino for contemporary Hollywood: someone who is noteworthy not for the high quality or popularity of the films she makes (Murder by Numbers is not a hit, and even the $100-million Miss Congeniality is hardly an object of adoration) but for the endurance she has shown in continuing to shape and to headline feature films despite the fact that she has virtually no loyalist following. Hollywood won't let many of its most successful actresses within a fifty-foot reach of project development or script approval, but here's this indifferent actress and sometime celebrity who over and over shows the moxie to do what she wants. And in Murder by Numbers, she's even contributed a halfway interesting performance, as a professionally competent but privately childish woman who largely bases her behavior on jealousy, envy, provocation for its own sake—she's more like a high school kid than the high school kids in the film. Bullock may prove herself yet as an actress, and she's already quietly been earning her stripes as an entrepreneur.

So even if Murder by Numbers isn't much to watch, the social and industrial conditions that have allowed it to be made are worth at least a passing thought or two. And on the brain-dead level, there's more here to keep you guessing than there is in Panic Room, the Jodie Foster vehicle that trounced it at the box office. Better luck next time, Sandra—and congratulations to you for doing the behind-the-scenes legwork that guarantees a next time. Grade: C

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