starring Jim Carrey, Virginia Madsen, Logan Lerman, Danny Huston
screenplay by Fernley Phillips
directed by Joel Schumacher
by Walter Chaw The wilted potential part of it reminding a great deal of Ramsey Campbell's The Count of Eleven, the new Jim Carrey vehicle The Number 23 finds professional hack Joel Schumacher returning to his Flatliners camp/schlock phase: a sort of supernatural thriller (sort of) that goes the Secret Window route towards absolute stunning mediocrity. Hardest to watch isn't Schumacher's umpteenth treatise on how to shine any project to a frictionless, dimwit, burlesque sheen, but rather Carrey's betrayal of himself by following Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind with a limp Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, a dreadful Fun with Dick and Jane, and now this. It suggests to me a lot of things, most of all the impression that Carrey, despite still wanting at least in part to be taken seriously as an actor, may have lost the critical facility first to avoid Schumacher projects and second to differentiate between high-concept dreck and Charlie Kaufman existential inspiration. Neither mysterious nor enthralling, The Number 23 is ridiculous, not for its complexity, but for its belief in its complexity--not for its Byzantine twists and turns, but for its utter self-delusion. It's READER'S DIGEST: the presumption that people who actually read would prefer to read this truncated, pandering, aggressively-neutered pap.
Dogcatcher Walter Sparrow (Carrey) corners a mutt to which he'll later attribute supernatural powers. It's a strange thing, albeit no stranger than his obsession with a book, the titular The Number 23, he comes to believe holds the numerological skeleton key to the secrets of the universe. In no time flat, Walter is spending sleepless nights teleporting himself into the rockabilly persona of the book's soft-boiled hero (think Carrey's Eastwood imitation from Bruce Almighty employed at length) in high junk-fantasy-noir style Schumacher represents with a cut-rate Sin City aesthetic. He's going for Pi by way of The Club Dumas: a literary thriller about number systems--a "Pi" here, the "23 enigma" there--that proves completely beyond Schumacher's vanilla capabilities. The best that can be said for the picture is that every failure like this makes the likelihood of subsequent identical failures less likely, thus a disaster provides comfort, however hollow and Pollyannaish. It's the type of cold comfort, in fact, that numerological systems employed towards the organization of chaos offers me: If Fibonacci spirals are the chemical/mathematical recipe for the machinations of the human mind, if the meaning of life is "42"--what now? Romantic to some (it's the arithmetic equivalent to archetype theory, after all), it's just vaguely bleak to me.
Instructive to compare The Number 23 to Marc Forster's far superior Stranger Than Fiction, another picture about a book of a life that hurtles to an inevitable conclusion that is nonetheless dishearteningly averted (and starring, as it happens, another physical, slapstick comedian playing it "straight"), in that where the one only fails when it dodges its existential despair, The Number 23 fails in not understanding the nature of the crisis itself. It's not that Walter discovers that his life is slotted for one eventuality, noble or ignoble, but that Walter has a stupid murder mystery to solve that somehow involves his blubbering wife Agatha (Virginia Madsen, egregiously wasted) and numerology expert Isaac (Danny Huston, doing Dustin Hoffman's role as the picture's exposition). What has as its foundation a complicated bit of metaphysics is CGI-enhanced, genre-slotted, and "atmosphered" into stultified incoherence ("spooky red light" should get a credit in the cast listing)--and all the while Carrey, as is his inclination, begins to overcompensate for a project that, we presume, he discovered he was a lot smarter than too late.
What remains of interest, and there's plenty of time to mull it over, is the Carrey enigma: an actor, maybe a gifted one, who's been in excellent pictures (like The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine, even Man on the Moon) where he plays slippery, impenetrable, soulful ciphers draped over the tattered cloth of a violent palimpsest. It's really no great leap to understand what appealed to Carrey about The Number 23, but for a guy who seems this intelligent, with this much control over the course of his own career at this point, it's fair to wonder what kind of numbers drive him to set sail with sub-standard ships captained by deficient fools. Originally published: February 23, 2007.