The Number 23 grips hold of one stupid idea and runs so far with it, in so many directions, to such little purpose, that it nearly won me over from sheer berserkoid effort. In a nutshell, this nutso movie observes what happens to a man (Jim Carrey) under the impression that every damn thing that’s happened in the history of the world somehow relates to the titular digit—Hiroshima, the death of Hitler, Grandma’s birthday, whatever. Parents each contribute 23 chromosomes to their kids; the Earth’s axis is off by 23.5 degrees (and 5 = 2 + 3); the Mayans predicted the apocalypse on December 23, 2012 (20 + 1 + 2 = 23); New Line Cinema projects a $23 million opening weekend. Evidently, the secret principle of the universe comes down to six degrees of separation for algebra nerds. (And 6 = 2 x 3!)
There’s something sort of adorable about a thriller premised on the delusional analysis of utter randomness, and I salute its makers for extending this helter-skelter desperation to everything in the movie—plot, character, logic, continuity, production design, cinematography. If nothing else, they’re consistently arbitrary.
The plot is beyond complicated, but it basically comes down to this: Omigod, 23! Omigod, 23!! Omigod, 23!!! Yet, for all its relentless number-crunching, this is really a movie about story-telling, and stories within stories, and stories within flashbacks within fantasies within madness—all of it unloaded with the help of exposition so preposterously contrived it borders on parody. Director Joel Schumacher appears to take things very seriously, but there’s a sense that screenwriter Fernley Phillips is winking up from the page and having a bit of fun with the idea that deranged paranoia is a form of authorship and vice versa, each being motivated by a impulse to pattern-making, a compulsion to arrange connections that don’t naturally exist.
Carrey stars as Walter Sparrow, mild-mannered factotum of the local Animal Control. From the look of things, he appears to have a muskrat living on his head, but crisis of coif notwithstanding, his immediate concern is a runaway dog growling in the alley of a Chinese take-out joint. Any veterinarian—or veteran of corny supernatural thrillers—could identify the breed as Benevolent Totem crossed with Guardian of the Dead, but Walter remains oblivious even as the pooch leads him to a gravestone and sits patiently with a Meaningful Stare.
In any event, the dog detour makes him late for a date with his wife Agatha (Virginia Madsen), who’s passed the time at a bookshop flipping though the ratty red covers of The Number 23. Encouraged perhaps by the hilariously blatant red color scheme of the movie she’s in, Agatha purchases the mysterious, self-published tome for her hubby. “Have some writer fill my head with nonsense?” says he. “I’ll wait for the movie.” Ha! Ends up the book is, like, the story of Walter’s life and everything! Cue a cut-rate film noir that Walter imagines as he pursues the text, starring himself as a hard-boiled detective with an uncanny resemblance to Gaius Baltar from
Battlestar Galactica and his wife as a femme fatale with a less-than-magnificent ability to navigate in stilettos.
This interior film is beyond complicated, but it basically comes down to: Omigod, 23! + killing. That’s how The Number 23 goes from being a film about diabolical literature and hysterical numerology to a murder mystery that has something to do with a certain Dr. Sirius Leary. But seriously, could this film please be a little more off its rocker? A word of warning to fans of Dreamcatcher, Silent Hill, and Domino—guilty pleasures with a similar devotion to throwing themselves off the cliff of credibility— The Number 23 is a lot more fun to write about than sit through. That said, cultists will note that this review is appearing in The Village Voice, a publication with 15 letters to its name. 1 + 5 = 6, and 6 = 2 x 3. Omigod!
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 13, 2007