Number 23, The (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Since this is a thriller, there must be a twist. One goes into a movie like The Number 23 with this expectation. However, not only is the twist telegraphed early but it is presented in a clumsy and unconvincing manner. Other films have employed a similar plot device to good effect. (I will refrain from naming titles since that would constitute unnecessary spoilerage.) The Number 23 shows how not to do it. The film has a few things going for it. Matthew Libatique's cinematography is evocative and there are isolated individual scenes that work when dissociated from the movie as a whole. But as a cohesive piece of entertainment, The Number 23 is largely a failure.

Walter Sparrow (Jim Carrey) is leading a seemingly normal life with a seemingly normal wife, Agatha (Virginia Madsen), and a seemingly normal son, Robin (Logan Lerman). (It's necessary to throw in a "seemingly" here and there because of the nature of the production.) Everything changes the day his wife purchases a copy of a book entitled The Number 23 at a used bookstore. The book is about the obsession of the main character, a detective named Fingerling, with the number 23 in its various permutations. Walter becomes obsessed with the book. He senses an eerie connection between himself and Fingerling and, like the protagonist, he believes there's something important about how often 23 appears in his life. A psychologist friend (Danny Huston) suggests that he sees 23 everywhere because he's looking for 23 everywhere, but Walter ignores this sensible advice and begins to imagine conspiracies and murders.

The most interesting thing about The Number 23 is the number 23, and how it can be construed to arise in seemingly any circumstance. (This often requires a lot of fudging.) This is a real pop culture phenomenon sometimes referred to as "The 23 Enigma" or "The 23 Curse." (Every person has 46 chromosomes, 23 from each parent. The tilt of the Earth's axis is 23 degrees. 9/11/2001: 9+11+2+1=23. The date Titanic sank - 4/15/1912: 4+1+5+1+9+1+2=23. And so on…) Unfortunately, despite several lengthy discussions about numerology in the movie, this is largely a red herring. It does not figure prominently in the solution of the mystery and that's one of several reasons why the film is disappointing and anti-climactic. Another big problem is that the "reveal" occurs about 20 minutes before the ending. This requires us to endure a quarter hour of tedious exposition as the filmmakers hold our hands and take us painstakingly through every incident to show how everything fits together. It's not all that complicated to begin with, and it's annoying when a movie adopts such a patronizing attitude toward an audience. Most thrillers demand a certain degree of attentiveness from viewers. The Number 23 allows bathroom visits and nap taking because it summarizes everything in the final 15 minutes. Whether or not the explanation is convincing is another matter altogether.

It's hard to argue that Jim Carrey is completely miscast as Walter, but he is perhaps not the best choice for someone with such extreme mood swings. Carrey, in "serious actor" mode, is fine playing a normal guy (which is Walter for about a third of the running length), but he lacks the intensity and desperation that are eventually required as obsession grips the character and pulls him under. On the other hand, when depicting the adventures of Fingerling in several neo-noir sequences, he's a solid match. Virginia Madsen suffers from the same issue that has plagued her since Sideways (and perhaps before that): underuse. Aside from her few brief appearances as the character of Fabrizia opposite Fingerling, she isn't given much to do that falls outside the spectrum of standing by her man. Danny Huston shows up a few times in the requisite psychologist part, but he's not integral to the story.

Ultimately, the limitations of the actors are not what sinks The Number 23; it's the writing and direction. Joel Schumacher has what could best be called a checkered history, and this is not one of his better films. The movie's premise, while not brilliant, is solid and could have been used to develop an edge-of-the-seat thriller with a genuine surprise or two. As it exists, however, The Number 23 feels perfunctory and is developed in such a way that few people are likely to leave the theater satisfied. The movie isn't sufficiently lurid or campy to be enjoyable on an exploitative level and it's not well enough crafted to work as a more serious form of entertainment. The Number 23 is a lot closer to a zero than to its title denomination.

Number 23, The (United States, 2007)

Director: Joel Schumacher
Cast: Jim Carrey, Virginia Madsen, Logan Lerman, Danny Huston, Rhona Mitra
Screenplay: Fernley Phillips
Cinematography: Matthew Libatique
Music: Harry Gregson-Williams
U.S. Distributor: New Line Cinema
Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 2007-02-23
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1