I know math scores have been systematically dropping with America’s youth, but have we gotten to the point where numbers themselves are scary? The Number 23 is a thriller built around the spookiness of a digit greater than 22 but a little less than 24. Does anyone have nightmares about walking down an empty hall only to have the number 23 pounce from the shadows and scream, “Boo?”
Walter Sparrow (Jim Carrey) is a dogcatcher that gets bit on the job. This event causes him to be late for a scheduled birthday rendezvous with his wife Agatha (Virginia Madsen). She wanders into a local bookshop and picks up a worn, self-published book called The Number 23 as a present for her hubby. The book seems to be littered with private details from Walter’s life and he’s left dumbfounded. The main character is haunted by the number 23, which seems to be everywhere and nowhere. Walter starts to see the number dominate his life and fears that he too will fall victim to its control. Walter is also worried that his life will start mimicking that of the book, including the part where he goes psycho and kills his loved ones.
The film spends the majority of its time on two obsessions: the book and the number 23. Now, the number conspiracy is just ludicrous and silly, and it contorts and strains to prove its message. In the flick, someone will scream about some important date in, say, 1940, and then go theorize that it has eerie significance because 19+4+0 equals, tada, 23. But why not 1+9+4+0, or 19+40, or even 1+940? Because then it doesn’t work. Sometimes you take the date, sometimes you add up the numbers in the month, sometimes you need to add up the numbers in the month and the year, sometimes you add and then multiply and then divide numbers (like the contrived manner of making the word “pink” part of this theory); the point is that it’s all arbitrary and worthless. You could go through the same convoluted dance with any number. The same effect happens with cold readings where a “psychic” will spout some vague declaration (“I feel like someone with an ‘R’ in their name died in the last five years”) and rely on the sucker, in this case the audience, to imbue it with some personal meaning (“Oh my God, there was a guy on my street named Rick that died four years ago!”). And all of this relies on the assumption of accurate record keeping for time.
Being haunted by a reappearing number is just dumb, but reading a mysterious book that depicts your own life and predicts you will become a murderer, now that’s interesting. I wish The Number 23 had spent more time with this idea instead of the numerical nonsense. I wanted more questions and contemplation about a book that knows all instead of a number that people bend over backwards to locate in their daily lives. And yet, even this storyline needed a metaphysical jolt. The conclusion follows the most boring, tame, and predictable route that can be best explained. The second half of The Number 23 needed to be more Stephen King and less James Patterson. The psychological aspects of this conundrum are barely explored before the movie seems to lose interest even with its own brand of hokum. Debut screenwriter Fernley Phillips takes the path of least resistance to the finish line.
There are some leaps in logic and character motivation throughout. The Number 23 has a strange moral reminder, namely that of a dog that saw something bad and has convinced its doggy self to do something about it, which means spontaneously appearing all over town like a nagging ghost. It is just another plot point that goes too far and breaks credibility, especially since The Number 23 wants to be remotely plausible. Another example is a murder victim who berates her would-be killer while he holds a knife to her throat. She says, among other things, that he’s a freak, she never loved him, and then the final dagger is aimed straight at some long-suffering daddy issues. I doubt anyone picks “knife to throat” as the time to unload their personal grievances. The dialogue also suffers from being so serious to the point of hilarity: “Is 23 a blessing or a curse?” What? Huh?
Director Joel Schumacher (Phonebooth) seems to be having a fun time getting his hands dirty with the material. He can get carried away, and sometimes he uses a sledgehammer when he should have used a slight tap to establish mood. Still, this is one film that you cannot blame the oft-reviled director for ruining. He attempts to goose up this psychological thriller with some persuasive visuals, but all the tricks can’t hide the fact that The Number 23 needs a lot more bite to come across as edgy. It’s too plodding to be disturbing; it’s mostly dank.
Carrey seems an ill choice for this material. Dark brooding doesn’t come natural for America’s foremost manic funnyman; he has some dramatic skills, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and a spot-on Andy Kaufman are proof of that, but this isn’t drama, it’s serviceable, gussied-up trash and Carrey doesn’t have the reservoir to show us the dark depths of the human soul. It is somewhat comforting to see Madsen getting more roles since her 2004 Oscar nomination, but she seems to be parlaying that nom into a permanent slot as “wife to lead.” She at least gets to vamp it up in the story within a story as a raven-haired femme fatale.
Even with the preposterous killer number thing, this is a movie with remarkable guilty pleasure potential upside. It’s equal parts interesting and frustrating, and builds a good head of steam before totally unraveling in the last act. The Number 23 is a psychological thriller that just needed better focus with its own obsessions.
Nate’s Grade: C