It can't be good news when a baboon upstages his co-stars

From Miss Congeniality to Dirty Harriet? Well, not quite. But Sandra Bullock does play a homicide cop in 'Murder by Numbers,' and early on gets to tell her new partner 'Welcome to Homicide,' just like Clint Eastwood in 'Dirty Harry.'

Well, maybe not quite like Clint Eastwood. But she does get to chew gum with terse determination and dispatch crisp remarks at crime scenes. And she tosses a guy out of the sack in the wee hours just as quickly and casually as she invited him in the night before. But playfully Ñ this is Sandra Bullock, after all.

Bullock plays veteran homicide detective Cassie Mayweather, whose latest case touches a nerve that makes it personal for her, tough for her new partner, Sam Kennedy (Ben Chaplin), and frustrating for her boss (R.D. Call). The girl found dead in a creek bed outside a small California coastal town was put there by two high school kids, Richard Haywood (Ryan Gosling), and Justin Pendleton (Michael Pitt), who killed her as an experiment in committing 'the perfect murder.'

The murder plot will ring a bell for anyone familiar with the notorious Leopold and Loeb 'thrill killing' of 1924 and the multitude of films it inspired, including 'Rope,' 'Compulsion' and the more recent 'Swoon.'

The problem Ñ or one of several Ñ is Tony Gayton's script, which attempts to realize its ambitions through contrivance rather than complexity. The longer it goes on, the more twists it involves, until an extended climax induces impatient foot-tapping rather than tense seat-gripping.

This is one of those movies in which things happen and people behave a particular way because the script needs them to. It even includes a baboon as a red herring. You see, the killers need a misleading piece of evidence to plant (hey, how about a baboon hair?), and the hapless high-school janitor just happens to keep a baboon locked in a shed, and É

You get the idea. This is another misguided thriller that makes a monkey out of director Barbet Schroeder. After last year's fascinating 'Our Lady of the Assassins,' it maintains his habit of alternating such intriguing dramas as 'Lady,' 'Barfly' and 'Reversal of Fortune' with the overwrought likes of 'Desperate Measures,' 'Kiss of Death' and 'Single White Female.'

It doesn't help that Bullock lacks gravity, sounds whiny when she's supposed to be tough, and only seems at home when playfully seducing Chaplin. On the other hand, Chaplin does modest but solid second-banana duty here just as he did recently for Nicole Kidman in 'Birthday Girl.'

But the crucial partnership of the killers doesn't work, partly owing to the occasional phenomenon Ñ call it Romeo and Juliet syndrome Ñ in which certain roles require a degree of sophistication most young actors can't provide. This is the case with Gosling and Pitt, who never make this mismatched pair convincing.

Gosling's master seducer looks as if he's awaiting his big break on some WB series and seems too obnoxious to seduce anyone.

Pitt, as the studiously creepy outsider, can't seem to decide between doing a brooding Leonardo DiCaprio or a spooky Tobey Maguire, and so tries hopelessly for both.

Unfortunately, the baboon makes the best impression. He jumps out of nowhere, screeches, takes a bite out of Bullock and (we can only assume) goes back to his trailer for a massage, a bottle of trendy water and a call to his agent.

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