- The Washington Times - Friday, April 19, 2002

"Murder by Numbers" never adds up to anything ominously absorbing or inspired while posing Sandra Bullock as a supposedly brilliant but emotionally scarred homicide detective named Cassie Mayweather. (Well, she's physically scarred, too, but the filmmakers play that illustrative sucker punch a little close to the vest.)
She is encumbered by a haunted past that keeps intruding on the murder case at hand.
Priorities are fatally out of whack in the movie. Screenwriter Tony Gayton and director Barbet Schroeder spend insufficient time clarifying Cassie's hang-ups, which also perplex a sympathetic and romantically susceptible new partner named Sam Kennedy (Ben Chaplin).
The filmmakers are preoccupied with the designated felons, identified early as overprivileged high school monsters in a Southern California seacoast town called San Benito, doubled by San Luis Obispo. These boys, named Richard Haywood (Ryan Gosling) and Justin Pendleton (Michael Pitt), envision themselves as a diabolical improvement on Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold, the infamous kidnap-murder prodigies of the 1920s. They conspire to engineer a "perfect crime," strewing false clues designed to mislead and baffle the police once their victim is discovered.
It's difficult to decide whether these bloodthirsty amateurs overrate themselves more than the filmmakers do. Let's just say the two sides constitute an unhealthy mutual admiration society that grows insufferably tedious for two unsavory hours.
Anyone who frequents the movies is aware that the medium is a pushover for psychopaths. Arguably, the ill-advised fondness achieved a repulsive dead end with "Hannibal." Nevertheless, accepting Richard and Justin as intriguing upstarts is a losing game of make-believe.
Richard generates dead-giveaway suspicion as soon as he's interrogated. When a belated flashback treats us to the crime as it's being committed, the circumstances seem to cry out for prompt detection. The killers must have left as many incriminating traces as bogus plants. There's even a touch of the exotic that points straight at Justin: a sample of regurgitated caviar near the corpse.
The only mystery element turns out to be guessing which boy might be the worse influence and nastier specimen of degeneracy.
Cassie permits herself to get more involved with both than she should a shade maternal with Justin and a shade erotic with Richard although the motivations remain unclear, especially for a hard-bitten gal.
She has been sternly reminded, however, that she is expected to identify with the killer more than the victim the better to reconstruct a killer's actions, I suppose.
The ramshackle nature of the "Murder by Numbers" screenplay is symbolized by the boy killers' conspiratorial hideaway: an abandoned sea-cliff residence that suggests a project Kevin Kline might have forgotten about before he put his mind to completing that dream house in "Life as a House."
Miss Bullock, evidently guided by sheer inspiration to this site for the finale, is destined to simulate a life-or-death struggle on a collapsible back terrace once she arrives. This sequence proves the funniest-looking cliffhanger of its kind since the priceless showdown at the phantom lighthouse at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge in "Final Analysis," celebrating a 10th anniversary this year.
Come to think of it, aren't we overdue for a thriller that unites Miss Bullock with Richard Gere, who ran himself ragged in "Analysis"? Perhaps an update of Alfred Hitchcock's "Spellbound." She might be adorable playing Ingrid Bergman to his amnesiac Gregory Peck.
The files of Cassie Mayweather are unlikely to reward further investigation.

TITLE: "Murder by Numbers"
RATING: R (Occasional profanity, graphic violence and sexual candor; sustained morbid emphasis; teen-age characters as psychopaths)
CREDITS: Directed by Barbet Schroeder and written by Tony Gayton. Cinematography by Luciano Tovoli.
RUNNING TIME: 125 minutes

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