Ridiculous to the point of delirium, The Number 23 is further proof that ex-costume designer Joel Schumacher (8MM, Batman & Robin, A Time to Kill) can?t direct a movie to save his life. Written and co-produced by first-timer Fernley Phillips, its premise that nearly all catastrophic and dramatic events throughout history have a mystical connection to the number 23 is so idiotic that it invites self-parody before the film is even halfway over. (?Twenty-fucking-three!?, as several different characters scream at significant points throughout the film.) A plot that telegraphs its secrets barely half an hour into the movie combines with smeary, CG-enhanced visuals from usually reliable cinematographer Matthew Libatique (The Fountain) to produce a movie that, at best, drills its audience in the handy skill of adding single-digit numbers (twenty-fucking-three!), if it hasn?t already driven them out of the theater by the time it reaches its laughable conclusion.
A miscast Jim Carrey stars as Walter Sparrow, a mild-mannered dog catcher who lives in suburbia with Agatha (Virginia Madsen), his cake-baking wife of 13 years, and their son Robin (if you were named Sparrow, would you name your kid ?Robin??) Through a chance series of events, Walter meets his wife for a birthday night out at a local bookstore, but only after she?s had time to pick out a present for him in the form of a battered, grungy, red-covered book entitled ?The Number 23,? written by the mysteriously-named author ?Topsy Kretts? (read that a few times and if you still can?t figure it out, I?ll introduce you to ?Dr. Acula?). As Walter becomes engrossed in the supposed work of fiction, he finds that its events not only mirror his own life in eerie ways, but also becomes aware of a phenomenon called ?the 23 enigma,? wherein dates, ages, statistics, names and significant events in history all turn out to be related to the number 23, especially with the application of a little creative mathematics (like dividing by ?pink,? for instance).
Walter becomes obsessed with the enigma himself, and begins having nightmares featuring the characters in the book, which include an edgy detective named Fingerling (Carrey again) and a sexy Italian cupcake named Fabrizia (Madsen again, in black wig), who appears to own no clothing except negligees. Just as, in the book, Fingerling dreams about killing death-obsessed Fabrizia, Walter comes to fear that he?s in danger of offing Agatha as he sinks deeper into obsession and madness. The situation is made worse by the presence of Agatha?s friend Isaac (Danny Huston, Madsen?s real life ex-husband), a professor who conveniently knows all about the enigma, but seems to have romantic designs on Walter?s wife, again mirroring events in the book. Walter continues to dig deeper into the mystery, taking him to depths within his own soul that he didn?t know that he possessed, or perhaps ones that he?d forgotten about.
It?s difficult, when evaluating a movie like The Number 23, to choose which part of the film is most responsible for its awfulness (other than the presence of Schumacher, that is). One possibility is the quick-change the screenplay undergoes halfway through, when the number 23 and its accompanying enigma lose all importance to the story and the main plot concern becomes Walter?s exploration of a decade-old murder mystery. Or it could be the movie?s too-close-to-be-an-accident resemblance in plot, character and visual style to David Lynch?s amazing, yet under-appreciated Lost Highway, also about an ordinary guy?s descent into marital suspicion, murder, twin identities, shadows, and madness ? and both lead characters play saxophones. Or maybe the fact that, no matter how many tribal tattoo designs you paint on him, Jim Carrey will never be edgy or scary, especially if you also have him chasing dogs around in Ace Ventura mode (take a look at his music video in the Dirty Harry movie The Dead Pool for further proof). But really, there?s no reason to choose just one ? enough exist to consign the flick to the ?let?s put on something really stupid!? pile for Friday beer and pot-fueled ?moron movie? nights.
It?s flashy but hollow, stupid when it tries to be spooky (such as having a murder instigated by a character throwing away a pair of his wife?s shoes), formulaic and predictable (like the cliché of someone who?s crazy writing all over the walls), superficially noir but lacking both the dark heart of that genre and characters who are conflicted enough to sustain interest (the movie?s got a happy ending, believe it or not), it?s filled with inane dialogue (?Twenty-fucking-three!?), lacking suspense in its direction, and by the time the climax rolls around, is so tied up in inconsistencies and plot holes that it?ll have divided its audience between laughter and confusion. The seriousness and self-importance of the movie (and its marketing campaign, for that matter) are also offensive, particularly when the heavily-promoted ?23 enigma? turns out to have nothing whatsoever to do with the resolution of the story.
According to the press notes, Carrey was personally drawn to the screenplay because of his own fascination with the enigma, which makes how bad the movie turned out even sadder ? he gives it a good try, but can?t dissolve his familiar persona into either the ordinary guy or tough cop roles. Madsen has a little more to do here than she did as the latest Mrs. Harrison Ford-in-peril in Firewall, but it?s still a sad role to follow an Oscar nomination. Unfortunately for her, The Number 23 is a by-the-numbers disaster, no matter how you add it up, that doesn?t even compare favorably with her previous low point of Highlander 2. Still, like that turkey, it could be a real discovery for someone seeking a high camp, Lynch-lite train wreck which includes as one of its dramatic high points a stare-down between Carrey and a bad seed pit bull named Ned ? all it needs is a laugh track and it could achieve cult movie immortality.