Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Oxford Murders

Have you ever seen a movie that was clearly ripping off a more successful film?  I'm not talking about pornographic adaptations, like Flesh Gordon, Pulp Friction, or San Fernando Jones and the Temple of Poon.  No, I'm talking about movies that have tag lines like "If you liked Snakes on a Plane, you'll love Snakes on a Train!"  Well, The Oxford Murders isn't quite that bad, but it is clearly emulating a formula most Americans would recognize.

Martin (Elijah Wood) is an aspiring American mathematician that has just arrived at Oxford to work on his thesis.  He wants, more than anything, to have his idol, Arthur Seldom (John Hurt), as his thesis advisor; these days, though, Seldom is heard an encouraging word toward students.  Martin attends one of Seldom's lectures, where he hears Seldom declare that you cannot prove the truth of anything, outside the laws of mathematics, which means that philosophy (the search for truth) is dead, and life has no meaning.  Not surprisingly, there aren't usually questions for Seldom after he is done speaking, since he basically mocks their quest for knowledge in his lecture.  Martin, though, is brave enough to stick up for mathematics as a form of absolute truth, which gets him absolutely eviscerated by Seldom in the lecture hall.  Figuratively, of course.  It does get his attention, though.  Later, the two meet up again by chance, only to discover a murder.  The victim, Martin's landlady (Anna Massey) and an old friend of Seldom's, had been on the brink of death for years.  If it were not for a small bloody nose, there would have been no signs of foul play; well, except for the note that Seldom was handed while signing books after his lecture.  The note read "First of the series" and had a hand-drawn circle beneath.  Out of context, that note meant nothing, but the note and that bloody nose indicate that someone is committing a series of murders.  Worse, Seldom realizes that the murderer wants to impress him.  Can Martin and Seldom work together to figure out the killer's pattern, or will they forever be one step behind?

I mentioned a formula earlier, but I didn't point it out in the plot.  That's because it's more of a plot device than an actual plot development.  So, here's how the formula goes.  Seldom casually mentions an advanced mathematical concept, like Godel's incompleteness theorems, in front of Martin and a normal (non-mathematician) person.  The normal person asks what that is, and Martin explains it, with Seldom agreeing.  In his explanation, Martin might throw out another concept that the normal person has to ask about, like the vesica piscis, and Seldom jumps in to explain.  Basically, the normal person is the point of view character for the audience in these scenes, and one expert throws out technical concepts with sometimes questionable conclusions, but those conclusions are never questioned because the other expert backs the first one up.  Does that sound familiar?  It should.  Yes, this movie is based on a novel.  No, the novel is not by Dan Brown.  Man, I hate the two experts vs. the uneducated formula!  Unfortunately, The DaVinci Code and Angels and Demons have made the formula so successful that imitations are inevitable.  And, as much as I detest The DaVinci Code (book and movie), this movie is nowhere near as good.

The problem is not the acting.  John Hurt playing a clever and educated British man is not a stretch.  Elijah Wood, aside from his naturally peculiar speech cadence, was also fine.  He plays intelligent characters far better than dimwits, but I think he's been plateauing for a while with his emoting.  Leonor Watling plays a love interest for both men and she does a pretty good job.  It's not a major part, but she definitely made the most of it.  I'm not certain why a murder mystery would require her to get naked, but I think complaining would seem rude.  I was less impressed with the rest of the cast.  Jim Carter is adequate as the policeman investigating the murders.  Anna Massey and Julie Cox play an antagonistic mother-daughter pair, but their scenes are awkward and unnatural; I blame Cox more than Massey, because the awkwardness continues after Massey's character dies.  Dominique Pinon's character was pretty unbelievable, so his performance can be excused somewhat, I suppose.  Burn Gorman, though, plays a frustrated mathematician like his character was the Hunchback of Notre Dame.  His character is also unbelievable, but Gorman overacted well beyond the point of so-bad-it's-good.  There was something weird with his upper lip, too --- it didn't move much, which gave the impression (that I have been unable to prove) that his lines were dubbed over.  Whatever the reason, he was awful.  And, for some reason, Alex Cox (director of Repo Man and Sid and Nancy) has a bit part as a one-limbed insane mathematician.  I hope he doesn't get typecast.

I may not have been a huge fan of the acting and I may hate the two experts formula, but the deciding factor here is the story itself.  The first story problem can be seen with the basic structure.  Martin is the main character, right?  Something should, theoretically, be at stake for either him or his loved ones, which would indicate his love interest.  While it is mentioned that both are suspects in the murders (or at least some of them), there is never any sign that the police are especially interested in them.  So, there isn't a huge sense of urgency.  With Martin as the main character, though, the main character knows more about this film's concepts than the average person; Seldom is the expert, though.  That means that the main character is neither the expert nor the point of view character.  Making Martin the lead character distances the audience from the immediacy of the issue as well as the expert knowledge needed to solve the problem.

Oh, and the rest of the film is dumb, too.  That's a tough problem to overcome.  Why is there a romantic interest in this film at all?  Practically no time is given for it to develop; all it does is provide Martin with a reason to give up his academic aspirations and give bored viewers a pretty Spanish woman to ogle.  About those aspirations...Martin claims that he wants to quit academia forever, once the murder case is closed, and move somewhere with his ladyfriend.  There is no way in hell a budding mathematician that has been working hand in hand with his math idol is going to give that up; that would be like Tim "Ripper" Owens meeting Judas Priest, practicing with them, and then turning them down for a permanent gig.  Not going to happen, folks.  What makes this even worse is that, at the end of the movie, Martin is left seemingly without either love or academics.  Awesome.  The manner in which the plot is resolved also leaves something to be desired.  I don't want to spoil the "twist" that you will never see coming, or maybe never care about, but I will let you know that a busload of mentally handicapped children die to help reach the film's conclusion.  Not just any film can boast that claim, it takes a "special" one, like The Oxford Murders.

It's a shame, really, that this movie isn't very good.  Director Alex de la Iglesia did a pretty good job telling the story, and clues to the ending are shown, even if you're meant to overlook them.  It just happens that this movie has a stupid story that is made worse by its pretentiousness.  The best acting in the world can, at best, make a terrible movie worth watching once.  Unfortunately, the acting and directing in this is only good, which means you shouldn't waste your time with this movie.

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