Director Alex de la Iglesia has a penchant from creating comic book escapades in his dark comedies, making them fun – but ludicrous – experiences. Day Of The Beast – which he is best known for – follows a priest, a death metal salesman, and an occult T.V. show host as they race around Christmas-time Madrid, committing as many sins as possible so that Satan will reveal to them the identity and birthplace of the antichrist so they can put a stop to the oncoming apocalypse. Not only did the story of these Three Wise Men win several foreign Oscar-equivalencies (including a best picture Goya), it also became the Mexican Christmas-time viewing staple – kind of like It’s A Wonderful Life in the states.
So it comes to no surprise that the plot of Guillermo Martinez’s novel, The Oxford Murders, appealed to the director. In the same vein as The Da Vinci Code, the film’s plot revolves around murders and mathematical clues, mixing in Hitchcockian set pieces and Mystery Machine-esque sleuthing. The ingredients for making a ridiculous, dark film are there, but like the adaptation of Dan Brown’s overrated best seller, the director approached the material in an extremely serious manner, which is Oxford’s greatest misstep.
Attending Oxford University to continue his education, Martin (Elijah Wood) approaches famed author and notoriously hard-assed professor Arthur Seldom (John Hurt) to supervise his thesis. But instead of wooing the mathematic whiz, he frustrates him with his untrained mind and Martin becomes disenfranchised from working with him. After stumbling upon the dead body of an acquaintance together, the two men team up, both equally eager to deduce the motive and identity of the killer. Stumped by the cryptic nature of the case and clues left behind, a second murder quickly comes into play and the men must race against the clock before the assailant completes his diabolical master plan.
The majority of the film is spent watching the two mathematicians try to make sense of the logic series left by the killer, and while that is fun for spurts of time, de la Iglesia relies too heavily on the foreign nature of the concepts to the average viewer, leaving little room for character development or plot progression during most of the proceedings. Character interactions and relationships are rushed through way too quickly, leaving viewers with the head-scratching mystery of Martin’s sex appeal. I never thought I would say this in a review, but The Oxford Murders and Showgirls have something in common: Much like Nomi, every member of the opposite sex is attracted to Martin for some unexplained reason. It’s never known if they’re physical attracted to him or they like his personality (on-screen antics don’t give them enough time to get to know him), but both an unhinged musician (Julie Cox) and a nympho nurse (Leonor Watling) are writhing in heat over him, and he has to practically beat them off with a stick.
The cerebral moments eventually lead toward some rather suspenseful set pieces, which were done with Hitchcock in mind. A scuffle during a Guy Faux play is rather dazzling, and interactions with secondary characters that reveal clues are often time more riveting than the primary plot. The film itself is more visual than anything, and in that respect, de la Iglesia makes it interesting with his cinematic flair. Hurt sells the complexity of the situation at hand, delivering a solid performance given the abrupt and hurried nature of the film; on the flipside, Wood struggles to find his place as the lead, being a pretty dull, one dimensional character, who attempts the “student becomes the teacher” arc in the film, while Hurt is busy chewing all the scenery around him.
While attention should be paid to the mathematical reasoning behind the film, de la Iglesia couldn’t strike a healthy balance between characters and plot, making the film come off like they padded it with extras scene just so a math student couldn’t say, “… they didn’t explain that theorem as well as they could have!” Managing to stay afloat by being visually appealing and somewhat amusing, The Oxford Murders never ventures into the ridiculous territory that the source material lends itself to, instead opting to be too serious and occasionally cumbersome. But, if anything, the site of Wood slurping spaghetti off of Watling’s cleavage is definitely a sight to behold.