It’s one thing when a film is bad from the very start. There is an honesty about it, a candor that is, in its own small way, praiseworthy. The same cannot be said about THE NUMBER 23. Instead of breaking one’s heart merely by being bad, it commits the far more heinous offense of offering hope that it might be something that it is not: an elegant thriller full of delightful twists and turns. Sucking in the unwary, it spends the first two-thirds of its running time being intriguing, ominously mysterious, and slickly stylish. By the time it goes downhill in its last half-hour, the only thing left of that slick stylishness for which director Joel Schumacher is justly renowned. Rather than being something satisfying to which to cling, it only serves to taunt the audience for having fallen for the scam.
Jim Carrey is Walter Sparrow, a happy-go-lucky sort of guy who works in animal control and has the ideal marriage to Agatha (Virginia Madsen) and ideal relationship with 14-year-old son Robin (Logan Lerman). That’s right. His name is Robin Sparrow.
On a fateful day, February 3 as specified by the caption, he runs afoul of a petulant stray dog that’s terrorizing a Chinese restaurant. It all seems routine, except that Ned, the film makes a point of letting the audience know, gets the jump on Walter, takes a chunk out of his arm, and then leads him on a merry chase that ends in a graveyard with Walter bleeding and annoyed and Ned disappearing into thin air. It’s a bad start to an evening of celebrating his birthday and it gets worse. He’s late meeting Agatha, who kills the time browsing a bookstore (portentously named “A Novel Fate”). There, on a shelf, laid flat against the other books the better to show off its blood-red, tattering cover, is what will shortly set things in motion to the detriment of all concerned. It’s a slim novel proclaiming itself to be a story of paranoia and obsession centered around the eponymous number, and Agatha, who has read through its self-published pages while waiting, decides it would be the ideal birthday present for her husband.
Walter becomes, suitably enough, obsessed with the book, though why it takes him the several days of the story’s timeline to get through it when Agatha did so in the space of an hour or so is never addressed. Soon he, like the protagonist of the book, Fingerling, begins to see 23 everywhere, in dates, times, license plate numbers and, by assigning numbers to letters, in names. He begins compulsively scribbling calculations and noted coincidences on his arm. When his kid starts grooving on the same conspiracy vibe, Agatha has Walter speak to her old pal Isaac (Danny Huston), a college professor who lectures on such esoterica as the Orgone Engine. Isaac does the necessary exposition on the literature and lore associated with the number 23, blood takes 23 seconds to circulate in the human body, 46 chromosomes in the human body, 23 from each parent, and then dismisses it all as so much nonsense. Naturally, Walter is unpersuaded. Worse, he begins to take the correspondences between what happens to Fingerling, child and man, and the events of his own life seriously. And this might not be a problem except that Fingerling’s life is full of murder and mayhem, albeit punctuated with very good sex.
Visually, there is nothing to fault here. The mood is set and the way Walter is shown falling into the book is clever and imaginative. He sweeps into the book through a photograph and then through a series of windows in which other characters appear and disappear with a lazy unreality that is matched by the deliberate artificiality of the film exposures used. The people in Walter’s life become characters in the book, virtuous Agatha is transmuted from a blonde earth-mother type into brunette seductress Fabrizia, with Madsen showing aplomb in both roles. Isaac, easy charm and voice resonant with unmistakable authority, becomes Dr. Phoenix, seducer of women and betrayer of trusts whose air of sinister intentions is as suave as his carefully tailored suites and precisely pomaded hair. In a cruel twist of fate, Carrey gives one of the best performances of his career as Walter and Fingerling, the former sweet-natured, the latter as hard-boiled as his detective profession demands, or at least the cliché of it. Walter’s gradual going bonkers is handled with an unaccustomed subtlety that makes it oddly credible. His torment is palpable and generates not a little empathy.
But for all the really solid performances and terrific art direction that includes a charcter called The Suicide Blonde living in a white-on-white nest of compulsion covered with notes upon notes pasted on the walls, the script is a bust. With maybe one or two rewrites (dare I suggest 23?), this might have been a solid psychological thriller. As it is, there are too many holes, and sloppy ones at that. Small ones like why someone would go to a dark deserted building at night and be able to wander around, much less search it, without a flashlight. Big ones, like why would someone go alone and unarmed to confront a psychopathic killer?
THE NUMBER 23 has the form of a deeply troubling psychological thriller, but not the substance. When it starts going downhill, it goes quickly and takes everything, including dialogue and incidental music, along with it. And, to add the ultimate insult, it never does succeed in finding anything truly sinister about the number 23, except, of course, that it will always be associated with this flick.