One of the last lines uttered in "The Number 23" (via voiceover) is, "It may not be the happiest of endings, but it's the right one." Try the wrong one. There are plenty of movies that start off better than they conclude, but "The Number 23" takes such a radical nosedive after the promising first thirty minutes that it almost has to be seen to be believed. For lead actor Jim Carrey (2005's "Fun with Dick and Jane
") and for wildly uneven director Joel Schumacher (2004's "The Phantom of the Opera
"), this psychological-thriller-turned-sudsy-weeper represents a miscalculation in both their careers. The basic premise is an intriguing one, revolving around the possible mysticism of the number 23 as a prophetic, perhaps dangerous sign of some sort, but first-time screenwriter Fernley Phillips tosses aside further exploration in lieu of preposterous plotting and nonsensical character motivations.
When animal control worker Walter Sparrow (Jim Carrey) receives a used copy of a novel called "The Number 23" from wife Agatha (Virginia Madsen) on his birthday, he is struck by the amazing similarities between his own childhood and that of the book's main character, a detective named Fingerling. Agatha chalks it up to superficial coincidence, but soon Walter has become mesmerized with Fingerling and begins to take on the character's overriding obsession with the number 23 as it relates to his own life. To get to the bottom of the mystery and ensure that he does not adopt Fingerling's homicidal impulses, Walter sets out to locate Topsy Krett, the book's enigmatic one-time author.
"The Number 23" is fascinating as the story is set up, introducing the viewer to the uncanny consistent appearance of 23 within the real world. The visualization of the novel as Walter reads it is also intoxicatingly juxtaposed with his own mounting preoccupation with the allegedly fictional tale and the number it revolves around. Too quickly, however, director Joel Schumacher pulls back from penetrating the topic to any satisfying extent. By the start of the second act, the film has taken a turn toward silliness that inspires more smirks than chills. If scares were even a goal of Schumacher's, then he has failed completely. More than anything, "The Number 23" is a dopey, badly written melodrama that just so happens to feature gravedigging, murder, and asinine walks around abandoned mental institutions at night.
The aforementioned Jim Carrey, as well as Virginia Madsen (2007's "The Astronaut Farmer
"), exceed the requirements of their B-movie roles. In one of his most serious parts to date, Carrey is arresting as the dual Walter Sparrow and Fingerling, and seems to enjoy getting into the mindset of a man whose mental state may well be deteriorating. As Agatha, it's great to see Madsen getting so much high-profile acting work since her deserved Oscar nomination for 2004's "Sideways
," but it's about time she move away from playing second-fiddle wife roles. The week of this writing alone, she is in two separate pictures portraying only slight variations of the same person. As teenage son Robin, Logan Lerman (2006's "Hoot
") is set adrift with an underwritten character whose scripted actions are confused and unconvincing.
Attractively lensed by cinematographer Matthew Libatique (2006's "The Fountain
"), "The Number 23" is foreboding insomuch that its look matches its supposed intent. Otherwise, the film is a dumb and pointless excursion that goes nowhere of consequence and uncovers little of importance about the title numeral. The clunkily revealed final twists, whether one has seen them coming ahead of time or not, are the final nail in the coffin. As far as 23 goes, that is roughly the number of eyerolls each audience member will be doing in the last fifteen minutes. There's a creepy and provocative motion picture to be made on this subject, but "The Number 23" isn't it.