The Number 23
Director : Joel Schumacher
Screenplay : Fernley Phillips
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2007
Stars : Jim Carrey (Walter Sparrow / Fingerling), Virginia Madsen (Agatha Sparrow / Fabrizia), Logan Lerman (Robin Sparrow), Danny Huston (Isaac French / Dr. Miles Phoenix), Lynn Collins (Suicide Blonde / Mrs. Dobkins / Young Fingerling's Mother), Rhona Mitra (Laura Tollins), Michelle Arthur (Sybil), Mark Pellegrino (Kyle Finch), Paul Butcher (Young Fingerling / Young Walter), David Stifel (Hotel Clerk)
The Number 23 is an overworked horror-thriller based on an absolutely ridiculous concept that, at various points in the movie, comes tantalizingly close to working. If you can get past the inherent silliness of being afraid of a number and go along with the arbitrary flow of finding coincidences in which birthdays, social security numbers, and names somehow add up to the titular integer (or its inverse, 32,which one character helpfully explains is 23 backwards!), there is some potential metaphysical-conspiracy-theory creepiness to be found. However, even when the movie starts threatening to get under your skin, director Joel Schumacher, who never met a scene he couldn't overdirect, sends it straight into unintended camp territory.
The chief culprit in The Number 23 is its use of ridiculous noir-ish flashback sequences, in which the dog-catcher protagonist Walter Sparrow (Jim Carrey) imagines himself as a hard-boiled detective named Fingerling. Fingerling is the main character in a strange book called The Number 23 that Walter's wife, Agatha (Virginia Madsen), bought him for reasons that have much more to do with the screenplay's needs than any coherent character behavior. As Walter begins to read the mysterious, self-published tome, he begins to see distressing parallels with his own life, as if the author somehow knew him.
Schumacher provides us with a number of scenes from the book in which Carrey drops his wide-eyed, everyman persona as Walter and adopts the cynical attitude of a surly, tattooed, saxophone-playing detective whose primary interactions are with an unnamed woman called "Suicide Blonde" (Lynn Collins) who he first sees with a noose around her neck. Schumacher and cinematographer Matthew Libatique (a favorite of Darren Aronofsy's) present these scenes with a blown-out aesthetic that bleaches out virtually everything except the characters, who speak in such canned hard-edged prose that it doesn't just verge into parody, but clumsily stumbles into it and wallows around like a drowning animal. Carrey is not just unconvincing as Fingerling, he's actively funny, which doesn't do anything for the movie's otherwise darkly serious mood and tone.
The rest of the story involves Walter as he becomes obsessed with the number 23 and its relationship to his life. Once he gets hooked, he begins to see 23 everywhere, which sends him on a downward spiral odyssey that involves finding the author of the book and uncovering mysteries of his own past. Dragged along for the ride are Agatha and their overly enthusiastic teenage son Robin (Logan Lerman), not to mention a helpful professor (Danny Huston) who is conveniently on hand to explain that 23 has a special place in numerology and has been considered a dangerous number for a long time.
None of this really matters, though, because The Number 23 stumbles so mightily where it should fascinate. Even when it starts getting better and better at the end as the layers of mystery are slowly peeled away, the memories of its worst moments taint everything else. Part of the problem is that Carrey, who is woefully miscast, is never able to bridge the divide between Walter and Fingerling; as Walter, he is simply recycling his slightly befuddled regular guy role from The Truman Show (1998) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2003), and as Fingerling he crosses into new territory where he simply doesn't belong.
Schumacher, on the other hand, has slogged his way through such genre material before in films like The Lost Boys (1985), Flatliners (1987), and 8MM (1998), but it seems that he has learned little in the intervening decades about not overcooking the material. Luckily, Schumacher was born in 1939, which only adds up to 22. There might be hope for him yet.
Copyright © 2007 James Kendrick
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