If long-winded Wikipedia writers or Lost bloggers thought they could write an involving thriller, it would turn out something like The Number 23.
Fernley Phillips’ first-ever script is a story of obsession predicated on “the 23 enigma.” It’s a real-life numerological belief that every event or incident connects to that number. 666 is 2 divided by 3. The Earth’s axis spins at 23 degrees. The human body contains 23 pairs of chromosomes.
Shakespeare was born, and died, on April 23. Dr. Pepper blends 23 flavors. Devin Hester, the first NFL player to return a Super Bowl opening kickoff for a touchdown, wears No. 23. Country-pop group SHeDAISY happened to reference the number “23” in a couple of its songs.
See, not scary anymore. It’s absurd, and the movie numbs any sense of paranoia, evil or fear by piling on 23-isms. Combine random facts and math moves, and anything could be 23.
This film’s star, Jim Carrey, is 74 inches tall, was born on 1/17 and has 3 Blockbuster Entertainment Awards.
Add the individual digits. Yep.
This easily is one of Carrey’s worst star vehicles, not because it’s different but because it wastes his best efforts. Carrey modifies his twitchiness into jangled nerves so well that it’s hard to fault his decision to branch out into a thriller after years of comedy and drama. You just wish he had insisted on a rewrite and a different director than Joel Schumacher (8MM) in full hammering hack mode.
The movie has one original twist; it might be the first-ever thriller about an animal-control officer. As Walter Sparrow, Carrey still talks to animals; he just meows at dogs out of boredom with his job. For his birthday, wife Agatha (Virginia Madsen) buys him a book called The Number 23.
Typewritten, self-published by Topsy Kretts (get it?) and bound in blood red, it jumps off the shelf at her. Walter’s reaction: “Have some writer fill my head with nonsense? I’ll wait for the movie.” An awfully dangerous winking line for a movie packed with so much … well, you know.
Still, Walter picks up the book on a day off and is quickly engrossed in its tale. Fingerling, a sax-playing detective, investigates a woman’s suicide, and finds the 23 obsession creeping into his own life with his kinky lover, Fabrizia. Carrey and Madsen play these roles too — gothed-up, tattooed and making out like mad in a setting of equal parts Sin City and lame Stephen King miniseries.
As plot details match up with Walter’s life, he becomes convinced the book’s really about him. And as the tale ends with murder and suicide, he seeks out its hidden secrets before those happen. It is no joke that a canine named Ned, a “guardian of the dead” comes to play a crucial role.
Carrey has long been capable of much more than his movies that make money suggest, and Walter’s utter normalcy is far more interesting than any supernatural shenanigans. How he handles his teen son (Logan Lerman) necking with a girl is effortlessly realistic. Walter is an everyman character for whom we should feel sorrow for as he spirals downward into mental suffering.
Too bad Walter drowns in so many screenwriting devices that his whole life might just be one big nightmare of a flashback of a daydream. Meanwhile, Schumacher jerks his camera around for effect and rips off iconic visuals from Apocalypse Now to Metallica’s “The Unforgiven” video. And Madsen expects us to buy Agatha’s passive acceptance of Walter’s quest. When, in his sleep, your husband writes your name and “kill her” on his arm, a call for counseling might be in order.
The Number 23 starts as a dark variant on Stranger Than Fiction (how fixation on fiction can turn unhealthy) and ends with a melodramatic flood of embarrassing exposition. Perhaps the true evil of the number 23 is that the script tethers itself that many times to the actions of Ned the dog.