March 1, 2007

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The Number 23 (R)
Jim Carrey falls down a rabbit hole of numerological obsession in the thoroughly stupid The Number 23, a wannabe suspense movie

Walter Sparrow (Carrey) is a happy guy with a swell wife, Agatha (Virginia Madsen), and a nice kid, Robin (Logan Lerman). He even likes his job at animal control, though he wasn’t so fond of getting bitten by a feisty dog named Ned who then scampered off. The bite makes Walter late to meet Agatha, who kills the time waiting for him by wandering into a book store and reading The Number 23, a very hackily written detective mystery about one man’s descent into madness and how everything adds up to 23. (The movie introduces this parlor trick in its credits by taking infamous dates and adding them into 23. The credits flash for only the briefest second the numeral date of Sept. 11. So here’s how you’d capitalize on a national tragedy to fit the theme of your movie: 9+11+2+001; ooo, spooky. Except, add that significant date up a different way — 9 +1+1+2+1 — and you get 14, which isn’t the least bit scary unless Joel Schumacher decides to make a prequel to this pretend thriller.)

Walter reads just enough to figure out how to turn every number into 23 (not to mention colors, names, words) and to find parallels between his life and the life of the book’s protagonist, a hot-dame-loving detective who plays the sax. It’s me, Walter raves to his wife. Whatever, Agatha wisely responds. She tries to talk him out of pursuing his obsession with 23 but he peer pressures his son into seeing 23 everywhere and eventually the family is staking out the author and following clues to hidden secrets.

The Number 23 clearly wants to be a tale of thrills and narrative sleight of hand. It wants to be Hitchcockian, which I suppose it would be if Alfred had a less-talented younger cousin named Scooter Hitchcock who was always surprised by who the real killer is on Law & Order and whose favorite book is “Cliff’s Notes.” I saw this movie in the same week I saw Zodiac. In both movies, men become obsessed with one mystery beyond all reason. They don’t eat, they jeopardize family relationships, they see villains in every shadow. In Zodiac, that obsession seems real with frustrations and motivations that play themselves out in logical ways. In The Number 23, Walter’s obsession seems less like a kind of trick he slowly allows his mind to play on itself, to the point where he can no longer stop it, and more like the early signs of some kind of dementia. Or, since this is a movie about things not being what they seem and secret messages, perhaps Carrey is being held on the set against his will and all that melodramatic, over-heated crazy is his way of trying to get us to realize his plight and rescue him. Maybe 23 is first number to the combination of the lock that keeps him stuck in a Lost-like cage. Maybe when he pushes the button 23 times he gets a fish biscuit.

Some lovely art direction — both in Walter’s book-born fantasy sequences and in his “real” life — class the movie up, giving you a visual representation of the graphic-novel-esque, noir-like, suspense-filled movie The Number 23’s creators wanted it to be. The care and ingenuity shown in the art direction, however, are not nearly enough to make up for the lack of attention to everything else. Carrey is particularly ill-fitting in these fancy but cheap clothes, the movie isn’t smart enough to let him do any real acting and it isn’t cheesy enough to let him chew the scenery. Perhaps if you string together every 23rd emotion he has, you’ll find a hidden strong performance. D-

Rated R for violence, disturbing images, sexuality and language. Directed by Joel Schumacher and written by Fernley Phillips, The Number 23 is an hour and 35 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by New Line Cinema.