The Number 23
2007Director: Joel Schumacher
Cast: Jim Carrey, Virginia Madsen
f you must see The Number 23, it helps to go in with a plan. Expect a story following some form of logic, peopled by characters resembling living beings, and containing an exciting episode or two—and you’ll be pulling your hair out by the second reel. Plan to spend ninety minutes spotting “23s,” and you’ll walk out with a smile. As a friend of mine said after a screening, “It’s a feature-length ‘Where’s Waldo’!”
You know it’s February when your reviewing options range from Ghost Rider to Norbit. Coming just after the holiday awards push and months before the first summer blockbuster, late winter has long been the dumping ground for bad movies. So I didn’t go into Joel Schumacher’s new thriller The Number 23 expecting Rosemary’s Baby—I would’ve settled for The Ninth Gate. Sadly, the witless 23 can’t even manage that much.
Our feature starts with a credit sequence that also serves as an elementary math and history class: did you know Julius Caesar was stabbed 23 times? Or that the Hiroshima bomb was dropped at 8:15, and that 8+15=23? You do now, and it’s all downhill from here. We meet nice guy Walter Sparrow (Jim Carrey), a dogcatcher (?!) whose wife, Agatha (Virgina Madsen), gives him a novel called “The Number 23,” a potboiler about a detective named Fingerling (a greasier Jim Carrey). As Walter reads, he starts to share Fingerling’s obsession with 23, apparently a number with great cosmic significance (take that, 42!) Both men start writing addition problems on their arms in permanent marker, and when Walter turns the page to find that Fingerling’s become a murderer, he goes off in search of answers to keep himself from doing the same. That’s the gist of this unintentional comedy, but there’s room for much more along the way—murders, suicides, some rather grubby sex scenes, and a helpful professorial type who explains to Walter that 2 divided by 3 equals .666: “The number of the devil.” Is this starting to sound silly? I haven’t even mentioned Ned, a plump little bulldog who may or may not be the Guardian of the Dead.
In the end, the big question comes down to whether there really is a connection between the man and the book, or whether Walter’s just nuts. I’d love to reveal exactly how ridiculous the conclusion to this mystery proves, but I guess it wouldn’t be cricket to ruin the ending. Suffice it to say, The Number 23 is the latest in a long line of studio horror movies that tie themselves into knots hoping to stun you with the requisite mind-bending final twist. We can thank The Sixth Sense for this idiotic fad, which is hopefully on the way out—few phrases better define irony than the ‘requisite twist ending.’
Director Joel Schumacher’s love of camp trash can be fun (not even Anne Rice could make vampires gayer than The Lost Boys), but aside from the occasional light bondage, 23 stays paint-by-numbers. Director and screenwriter compile an index of scary-movie clichés—the high-contrast close-ups of a crime-scene body (each cut accompanied by a sonic “whoomp”), the bedclothes pulled off of a sleeping beauty to reveal a belly full of stab wounds, and four separate scenes of a lunatic madly scribbling magic-marker nonsense on a grimy wall. Again and again Schumacher makes the least interesting choice—we know Fingerling’s dangerous because he’s tattooed and unshaven, and that his girlfriend is bad news because she wears black. How to visualize Walter’s growing obsession? Throw a 23 into every frame!
Unfortunately, the director won’t catch the blame for this one—Jim Carrey will. Carrey’s getting older now—his face has rumpled, as if he’s frowning at missed opportunities—and his days as Ace Ventura are long gone. Still, the man is a talented, ambitious performer, and he works hard to make Walter’s silly meltdown seem believable, adding just enough impish menace to avoid embarrassing himself in a role filled with opportunities for embarrassment. Carrey did genuinely interesting work in his early comedies, even when the movies weren’t so great, but since trying to reinvent himself as a real actor in Peter Weir’s brilliant The Truman Show, his career has floundered, with the occasional Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind breaking up the endless string of big dumb comedies like Bruce Almighty and Fun With Dick and Jane. It must be frustrating to be strait-jacketed by your own star persona, and Carrey’s work in The Number 23 reeks of the desperation that only comes from boredom. I can’t say that desperation will lead to something better next time, but I’m pretty confident that it won’t lead to anything worse.
The Number 23 is currently playing in wide release.
By: Patrick McKay
Published on: 2007-03-01