It’s kind of amazing how much self-depreciation can turn something around. Not to spoil Murder 101‘s usage–it’s actually not the spoiler for the mystery–but think of The Muppet Movie. Almost the entire running time of the movie, there are frequent acknowledgments of the absurdity of the TV movie thriller genre. Murder 101‘s charm, in the end, is how dumb a lot of it gets….
The story, involving a writing professor (of a one year long course, which seems a little off for undergraduate writing courses) whose assignment of planning a murder for his mystery writing class, has a very TV feel to it. Pierce Brosnan both brings a cinematic quality to the film–so does Raphael Sbarge, which is strange, given Sbarge hasn’t been in theatrical releases since the mid-1980s–and makes Murder 101 seem silly. Brosnan’s performance is fine, but it reminds a lot of “Remington Steele,” down to the wife’s name. There’s an even split between trying hard to overact and acting. If that sentence just gave away the end twist, I apologize. But it’s worth sitting through for it.
Murder 101 establishes its mystery gradually, which gives the movie a real narrative feel–there’s a definite first act, introducing Brosnan back to teaching his course (only one, apparently) after a long sabbatical. Once the mystery starts, then everyone becomes a suspect–because everyone has to be a suspect in a television movie thriller. Except for the resolution, which isn’t particularly interesting, it’s compelling enough. It’s TV fare. But it always seems slightly more self-aware than most television movies allow themselves. Bill Condon’s direction–except when he apes Hitchcock’s low angles–is decent. There’s some visible intelligence at work with the movie. So when it’s just too stupid at times, it seems wrong. I’m not sure if that self-awareness covers the idiotic portrayal of college life, but I’ll give Condon the benefit of the doubt. The one scene I had the most problems with–people falling asleep at a poetry reading–became mildly more possible once I realized I’ve never been to a mandatory attendance undergrad reading.
On to Sbarge. He has this deceptive quality about him, like he’s easy to dismiss, but his performance is solid. He’s a suspect, of course, so he’s got a couple levels to work on… but he’s good. And made me feel bad I ho-hummed when I read his name in the opening titles.
The rest of the supporting cast is okay. Dey Young and Antoni Corone have their high and low points. Kim Thomson’s bad–her big scene is Condon’s worst, just because it’s so stupid. Mark L. Taylor, who’s a fine actor, gets stuck with a bad character.
Murder 101 is a good TV movie, from back when the cable companies were just getting started airing them (this era of relative quality lasted something like two and a half years). The twist is good enough, so well-played, it’s hard to know how much of it was supposed to be a joke.
Directed by Bill Condon; screenplay by Condon and Roy Johansen; director of photography, Stephen M. Katz; edited by Stephen Lovejoy; music by Philip Giffin; production designer, Richard Sherman; produced by Oscar L. Costo; released by the USA Network.
Starring Pierce Brosnan (Charlie Lattimore), Dey Young (Laura Lattimore), Antoni Corone (Mike Dowling), Raphael Sbarge (Robert Miner), Kim Thomson (Francesca Lavin), Mark L. Taylor (Henry Potter), J. Kenneth Campbell (Tim Ryder) and Todd Merrill (John Defazio).