So, yeah: Let’s just get this out of the way first. The Number 23 is every bit as preposterous as the previews portend. It’s about a man, Walter Sparrow (Jim Carrey), who discovers a pulp-detective novel that leads him on some sort of holy crusade against that goddamn number. Every motherfucking thing, from the second the film reel unspools until the credits roll, is about the number 23, so much so that I even began reflexively counting numbers and letters in my head to come up with my own numerology ludicrousness (e.g., daydreaming about a “Grande Caramel Macchiato” had me frustrated because there were only 22 letters and it’s not the season to order the numerically appropriate “Tall Ice Caramel Macchiato” — I suppose that it also tells you exactly how riveting The Number 23 is that this was where my mind was).
That said, whether it was organic or the simple byproduct of mental taxation, the smallest thread of intrigue did develop over the course of the film, so that the entire experience was akin to watching a scoreless game between two baseball teams you don’t give a shit about just to see if somebody would finally score (and the ending, tantamount to a run scored on a sac fly and a throwing error). It would’ve been a lot easier just to check the box score the next day, but — sadly — that wasn’t an option here.
But let’s back up a bit: First of all, despite what the previews suggest, it’s not a horror film, or even (as I’d hoped) a horror-comedy disguised as a slasher flick to secure the attendance of teenage boys. Even to call it a “thriller” would be a stretch, as that would suggest the presence of thrills, of which there are none in The Number 23. In fact, it’s so drab and cheerless that unintentional comedy is even out of the question. Simply put, it’s a mystery, and a pretty bad one at that. But unlike many big-screen mysteries that unleash compelling storylines and then botch the resolution (John Cusack’s Identity being the all-time worst offender), The Number 23 works backward, from a conclusion that might have been somewhat satisfactory if we could’ve mustered the energy to give a rat’s ass about anything leading up to it.
Successful mysteries — and there are only a handful out there — usually manage to present a number of possible scenarios for the killer: The obvious choice, the so-obvious-there’s-no-fucking-way-he-did-it choice, the logical choice, and guy you never expected but — damn! — he makes so much sense in retrospect. Say what you want about the Harry Potter books, but J.K. Rowling manages to pull off that feat every goddamn time. Sadly, most filmmakers get lazy with exposition these days and create a series of underdeveloped red herrings and then — Wham! — blindside you with a random killer they pull out of their asses and then slam down on the table like Mike Tyson’s member on a pat of butter (how’s that for an archaic Eddie Murphy allusion?).
Here, The Number 23 only bothers with the one real red herring — the somewhat logical choice — before dipping itself into that pat of butter, though I’ll grant the script this much: A director with even mediocre talent working with less well-known actors might have been able to pull it off successfully. Unfortunately, The Number 23 is directed by Joel Schumacher, who has only a passing familiarity with higher levels of brain function — in fact, he’d make the ideal spokesperson for those Geico commercials.
But getting back to that storyline: Walter is an averagely schlubbish dog catcher who — through a series of missteps mostly dealing with the number 23 and a canine named Ned (the letters of which add up to 23) — winds up late to pick up his tellingly named wife, Agatha (Virginia Madsen) after work. She waits for him in a bookstore, where she runs across a novel, The Number 23, that she ends up giving him for his birthday (February 3). Written by Topsy Kretts (Top Secrets — ha!) Walter becomes obsessed with the detective mystery and all its insipid numerology, developing increasing amounts of paranoia and realizing that both he and the novel’s main character, Fingerling, have — unsettlingly — quite a bit in common. Credit Fernley Phillips’ script here for at least depicting Walter as an obsessive nutjob instead of actually trying to convince the audience that there is something beyond mere coincidence to that (goddamn) number. (For those of you curious, the so-called “23 Enigma” was not the invention of Phillips — there is some crackpot history to it, including the belief that “The Ghost Whisperer” is haunted because it’s filmed on Stage 23).
Veiled spoiler ahead: Anyway, Ned — the dog — and the detective book all lead Walter toward an unsolved murder, which Walter must crack by discovering the identity of Topsy Kretts (you can draw your own conclusions from the italics). Walter, of course, feels that he’ll be unable to shake his obsession with that number (and by this point, Phillips is plumbing the depths to find reasons to present it) until he solves the murder of Laura Tollins, who died on her … 23rd birthday (making the sophisticated-looking 30-year-old Rhona Mitra an odd choice to play the part of the deceased).
For those of you who ignore critics as well as common sense and choose to attend The Number 23 anyway, allow me to offer one piece of advice: the entire plot of The Number 23 is recapitulated and solved in the last ~23 minutes. So, if you get bored, need to use the restroom 23 times, nod off 23 times, or even need to slip out and jog 23 miles, you don’t really have to stick around for the entire 95-minute runtime (oooh: 9+5+9, the number of letters in Jim Carrey’s name, is 23 — creepy).
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.
The Number 23 / Dustin Rowles
Film | February 23, 2007 | Comments ()