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The Number 23   D+

New Line Cinema

Year Released: 2007
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Joel Schumacher
Writer: Fernley Phillips
Cast: Jim Carrey, Virginia Madsen, Logan Lerman, Danny Huston.

Review by Rob Vaux

The Number 23 is an acute example of what happens when you pair the wrong artist with the wrong material. It appears to be intended as an exercise in paranoia, charting the descent of a normal-looking everyman into obsession and madness. David Fincher would have rocked this thing. Cronenberg? Oh you bet. And the mind boggles at what David Lynch could have done with a topic like this. Instead we get Joel Schumacher, who seems to treat his projects as extended jokes at the audience's expense. A sense of tongue-in-cheek flourishes beneath the surface of The Number 23, aided (perhaps inadvertently) by the presence of Jim Carrey in the lead. The effect distorts an already difficult concept to the bursting point, leaving a silly mess that fails as both a psychological thriller and a camp send-up of the same.

On the other hand, its main character is a dogcatcher, which we don't see nearly enough of in the movies. Indeed, hardly a day goes by when I don't think to myself, "Why don't our cinemas reveal more of the trials, tribulations, and internal landscapes of today's modern animal control officers?" If they're anything like the one in The Number 23, their lives could fill a dozen movies a year. Carrey plays Walter Sparrow, pooch-napper extraordinaire, whose life with his scorching-hot wife (Virginia Madsen) and adoring son (Logan Lerman) is close to perfect. That is, until a bite from a local stray delays him from a preplanned dinner, and the waiting Mrs. Sparrow wanders into the local bookshop. There, she finds a battered text called The Number 23 -- a kind of noir confessional depicting the mental unraveling of a private detective named Fingerling. She gives it to her husband, who soon becomes fixated on the similarities between himself and the protagonist... as well as the number 23 itself, which starts popping up in his own life as intrusively as it does in the pages of the book.

The mapping of his slow breakdown seems to suggest an expressionistic approach, with Sparrow's internal emotions reflected in the film's external scenery. Schumacher understands the concept, but proves utterly incapable of developing it, instead cluttering the screen with intrusive special effects and faux-clever shifts in point of view. The text of the novel Sparrow is reading (featuring Carrey as Fingerling and Madsen as the femme fatale who haunts him) confuses as much as it intrigues, compounded by constant segues between Sparrow's imaginings and his real-world life supposedly crumbling beneath his feet.

As the book takes deeper hold and hints of a greater mystery begin to reveal themselves, Schumacher resorts to increasingly ham-handed shticks to grab our attention. A menacing dog (the same one who bit Sparrow) keeps reappearing at inopportune moments, while various bits of numerological creepiness end up scrawled on walls, scraps of paper, and convenient forearms. The book's origins point to a long-ago murder for which a respected college professor (Mark Pellegrino) is currently rotting in prison, and there appears to be a missing chapter (the 23rd, natch) that promises to reveal everything. None of these elements arrives with any sense of style or flair. They're simply dropped unceremoniously in our laps, coded with meaning but unable to excite or thrill us the way they clearly should. The questions become obtuse rather than fascinating, and the contrivance of the title number (and its omnipresence in Sparrow's life) fails to convey any sense of dread.

Carrey doesn't help matters by thrashing about wildly with his character. At times, he uses his comedic persona to demonstrate Sparrow's sense of humor, but by toning it down, he renders it supremely phony. As the film goes on and obsession teeters into full-blown insanity, he goes completely off the handle, obliterating Sparrow in a wave of tics and spastic flopping. His scenes as Fingerling tickle the edges of parody but never commit to it, destroying both the film's ostensibly serious tone and the underlying absurdity that creeps into every frame. Madsen, no stranger to shitty dialogue, soldiers through as best she can, but her inhumanly loyal wife remains as implausible as Carrey's unhinged husband.

Schumacher, for his part, wrestles interminably between validating this material and undermining it. One suspects that he's not taking any of it seriously -- the film's insufferable bombast reeks of postmodern winking, though a few genuinely sly moments peek out every now and then. He seems to be camping it up as a way of salvaging his creative dignity but lacks the courage to go all the way with it. Such efforts destroy the overt thriller notions completely, of course, reducing the "exercise in paranoia" to a lot of overblown shrieking and highly dubious soap-opera theatrics. With a story like this, you can either play it straight and find a way to make it work, or undercut it and be happy with your impish mischief. The Number 23 tries to do both and succeeds at neither -- turning an ostensible thriller into a bad joke, then trying to pass off its failures as intentional. Sadly, that dodge isn't new for Schumacher; the only question is whether the audience catches on this time.

Review published 02.23.2007.

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