The Number 23 is one of those movies that make the critical side of my brain clash with the “I just want to have fun” side. From a logical point of view, the film is melodramatic, kind of silly, and unresolved in regard to some of the plot points it brings up. At the same time, it’s also different enough to be really interesting. For whatever it lacks in other areas, I was involved in The Number 23 the whole time. I’m once again reminded of an article I wrote several years ago called “My Favorite Movies I Didn’t Like.” In that article, I discussed films that were undeniably flawed, yet which nevertheless provided a lot of entertainment all around those flaws. This is another example of what I mean.
Jim Carrey is very good in this thriller, playing Walter Sparrow, an animal control worker who is given a strange book by his wife Agatha (Virginia Madsen). The book, titled “The Number 23,” has a blood red cover and appears to have been self published by someone using a pen name. It details the adventures of a detective named Fingerling who romances a “suicide blonde” and is eventually driven to murder by the repeated coincidence of finding “23” in everything. During several substantial scenes of the movie, Walter imagines himself as Fingerling, slowly descending into a morass of sex, violence, and numerology.
Some of the fictional detective’s life details mirror Walter’s own, and he comes to believe that whoever wrote the book knew he would end up with it. Walter also falls victim to “the 23 enigma” – a very real belief that the number prominently figures into many key world events. He finds it everywhere: in his birthday, in his driver’s license, even in the book itself. After circling every 23rd word on every 23rd page, Walter comes to believe that someone is sending him a message. Agatha begins to worry about her husband’s obsession. He worries too, especially since Fingerling goes mad in the book, and that could conceivably happen to him as well.
There is much more to the story, but to go any further would be to give things away.
What I liked most about The Number 23 was that it was unlike any thriller I’ve seen before. Director Joel Schumacher stylishly weaves the story back and forth between reality, dream, and the fictional tale of the detective. Watching how things pass from one to the other – and how connections are made – was actually really fun. The truth is that I generally didn’t know where the story was heading, and each subsequent piece of the puzzle hooked me a little bit further.
There’s even an amusing mini-game you can play while watching. The filmmakers have actually hidden “23” throughout the film, “Where’s Waldo” style. As Walter starts noticing the number, so do you. I even found myself making numerical connections to my own life; at one point, I realized that I was sitting in Theater 2 at the multiplex, and the film started at 3:00. Weird!
Then there’s Jim Carrey, who doesn’t initially strike one as somebody who’d turn up in a thriller. He’s very good, however. There has always been something dark inside Carrey’s comedy. You just know that somewhere along the line, he’s had his demons. The actor effectively lets that out, making Walter’s descent into madness fairly compelling.
As you can tell, there’s a lot here I like. But there’s also some stuff that didn’t exactly ring my bell. To start, the screenplay (by first-timer Fernley Phillips) packs in a few too many red herrings and surprise twists. So much goes on so suddenly that the drama starts to get a little overheated in the home stretch. It becomes little more than an exercise in twisty plotting, and some of the story’s emotional honesty goes out the window. There’s a big chunk of time at the end devoted to a flashback that tries to explain how everything happened. Some of those elements are more than a bit far-fetched. The movie needed a little more grounding in reality – and a little less self-indulgent plotting - to really sell us on the big explanation.
When it was over, I also couldn’t help noticing that some stuff didn’t add up. A lot of it does, but the few things that don’t are glaring in their obviousness. The movie doesn’t have a big blinking neon sign that reads “PLOT HOLE,” but it might as well. For example, we are told that one character does something in a short period of time, although surely what that person does could not have been accomplished so quickly. I also had big questions about the book itself. The use of an author’s gimmicky pen name seems unlikely given the book’s origin, as does its appearance at the store where Agatha buys it. If it really does go through the channels we are told it goes through, then it does not need the nom de plume and it would certainly never make its way to a retail outlet.
I cannot in good conscience overlook these flaws. I noticed them, and they bugged me. To downplay their effect would be dishonest. Then again, it would be equally dishonest to say that I didn’t enjoy much of The Number 23. It’s original and weird (in a good way) and not an altogether unpleasant way to kill two hours. The bottom line is that The Number 23 is the movie equivalent of a parlor trick. It’s cool to see and it can pleasantly catch you off guard, but there’s ultimately not much to it beyond its own sense of trickery.
( 1/2 out of four)
The Number 23 is rated R for violence, disturbing images, sexuality and language. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.
To learn more about this film, check out AskMen.com: The Number 23
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