Despite director Joel Schumacher’s best efforts, “The Number 23” is an ambitious but muddled failure. The screenplay is structured after the “23 Enigma,” which states that all significant events, names, dates and times are somehow connected to the number 23. The movie is a clever enough psychological thriller about a book with the ability to condemn its readers to madness, but it is unsuccessful at trying to weave together its many themes.
The story begins to unravel when middle-aged dogcatcher Walter Sparrow (Jim Carrey) is given a mysterious book by his wife Agatha (Virginia Madsen). As he reads the book, narrated by a detective named Fingerling (also played by Carrey), Walter begins to lose his grip on reality. Life begins to imitate art when the book starts resembling the events in Walter’s life and he starts having visions of murder. He soon becomes obsessed with the number and concludes that everything in his life — his name, birth date and social security number to name a few — is overshadowed by the dreadful number 23.
While the premise of the movie is intriguing, there are too many things happening at once and too many loose ends. Schumacher attempts to add mystery and intrigue to the movie by including a “guardian of the dead” in the form of a dog, along with a suicidal lady in white.
The creative settings, which include a room covered in a futuristic white glow, are visually enticing, though they do not add very much to the plot. The constant flashes that transition from the novel to Walter’s real life, and later to his childhood, keep the audience’s attention, but undercut the suspense.
The film tries to explore the truth about identity and faith, but it never ends up anywhere particularly interesting. What begins as a supernatural thriller ends up being a melodrama about a man coping with skeletons in his closet. The ending is far from satisfying, as it leaves much unsaid and viewers confused.
Though Carrey puts forth a great effort in this serious role, his bad-ass, tattoo-covered Fingerling character is a bit much to swallow. It is simply impossible to take Carrey seriously in a role where his character is surrounded by so much absurdity. It’s hard not to laugh at the implausible logic behind the connections made with the number 23, but adding Carrey to the equation turns this psychotic thriller into a comedy. His character was horribly miscast, a role which would have been appropriately filled by a lesser-known actor.
“The Number 23” can almost be seen as a combination of the films “Stranger Than Fiction,” “Secret Window” and “Sin City.” The story is centered around the narration of a book that directly affects the main character and how he lives his life, though the execution of this is far darker than in Marc Foster’s “Stranger Than Fiction.” Carrey narrates the book in an ominous voice, trying to sound intense while lacking emotion. The dark feel of the narration and the scenes with Fingerling are comparable to the storytelling style of “Sin City,” as both carry an eerie tone. And the overall theme of the movie, a man struggling with a deeply repressed aspect of his identity, reflects the plot of the far superior thriller “Secret Window.”
“The Number 23” is certainly not going to be this year’s breakout thriller, but it’s more than capable of making the average viewer’s head spin.
“The Number 23” was written by Fernley Phillips and directed by Joel Schumacher.
“The Number 23” received two out of four stars.