The Number 23 (2007) / Thriller-Mystery
MPAA Rated: R for violence, disturbing images, sexuality and language
Running Time: 95 min.
Cast: Jim Carrey, Virginia Madsen, Logan Lerman, Danny Huston, Lynn Collins, Rhona Mitra, Mark Pellegrino
Director: Joel Schumacher
Screenplay: Fernley Phillips
Review published February 25, 2007
I thought I might be ingenious and type up this review where you could count every 23rd word and get some deeper meaning, or sum up the film in short 23-letter sentences. I'm afraid that I haven't the faculties to be that clever, as I'm still reeling from the mental overdrive the film put my brain through with its tricky use of a number to extract some sort of hidden meaning that really isn't there. If I could amend the title somewhat, I'd add just one thing -- a colon placed right after the "r" -- so that I could properly describe just how numb my mind has become through trying to think of clever uses for the number 23. The use of a colon for this film is appropriate, considering where many of the film's ideas seem to be pulled directly out of. That's not exactly the best way to use one's digits.
If that sounds critically harsh, I don't really mean it to be, as The Number 23 did keep me engaged for the duration, which is more than I can say for many other bad films I've seen over the years. If only I had known that trying to dig deeper into the meanings would prove to be fruitless, as most of the tricks up its sleeve are easily guessed or explained away in a fairly pat fashion. I'm guessing there will be a fair share of viewers out there that will find an infinite amount of significance to things in the film, many of them unintentional on the part of first-time screenwriter Fernley Phillips and veteran director Joel Schumacher (Phone Booth, Bad Company). Just like Jim Carrey's character within the film can't stop seeing significance to his titular numbers, you'll see what you want to see, no matter how much you have to contort each idea or symbol to conform to your way of thinking.
Carrey (Fun with Dick and Jane, A Series of Unfortunate Events) plays dog catcher Walter Sparrows, who receives a gift in the form of an obscure book entitled. "The Number 23", which his wife Agatha (Madsen, A Prairie Home Companion) has bought for him. Walter becomes obsessed with the book, as the character at the center, a detective nicknamed Fingerling, bears some striking resemblance to events in his own life, and he soon thinks that its author, Topsy Kretts, is somehow speaking to him about universal meanings revolving around the number 23. However, in the book, once someone discovers the meaning, they commit suicide. Once completed, Walter is convinced that there is a hidden meaning to the book that needs to be answered by the prescient author. Is Walter mad, or is there something more to the story than just a simple detective story that stops at chapter 22? Will he also be the next victim to fall prey to the number's beguiling power?
Perhaps in the hands of another director, The Number 23 could have had the allure, mystery and sense of masterful perplexity that such an enigmatic premise needs in order to not fall apart from the weight of its own heavy-handedness. Though stylish, Shumacher's delivery here is without grace, never properly reeling us into the story through visual imagery or utilizing the music and choice quiet moments to add a tone that might foster a sense of the fantastic. Though the story by Phillips may be beyond the ability to rationalize, it's really the burden of the director to cover over the mystery's tells. Key plot points should be unveiled in a manner that make them appear as if they are divine revelations, rather than just odd coincidences told through clumsy contrivances and pulpy artistic license. Without that necessary sense of wonder, imagination, and transcendence beyond the norm, The Number 23 seems like what it is -- a gimmick movie that has intriguing possibilities that are never explored with depth or purpose to seem truly important.
There are symbols that would lend well to religious significance -- 2 divided by 3 is "666" (the number often associated with the devil), "dog" spelled backwards is "God" (Walter chases dogs for a living, and the dog he can't catch is claimed to be a G.O.D. -- a Guardian of the Dead), etc. However, Schumacher is never able to string these coincidences along in a form to engage viewers sense of awe, as other perplexing spiritual mysteries built on religious enlightenment have been able, such as Dan Brown's bestseller, "The Da Vinci Code". It's like listening to an audio book as narrated by someone who just utters the words of the page aloud, wholly detached from the significance of what he is reading. We get all of the information, but the presentation never really points out just how key certain ideas and passages are to the overall story -- a mundane treatment that stymies the discovery of sagacious themes.
As I watched The Number 23, I noted that the reason the novel within the film seems so significant is that it is an obscure work from an unknown source, which lends it a certain power because of its mysterious origins and cryptic intent. Perhaps the producers of this film should have also taken note; It likely could have worked in the story's favor to have been made by a talented independent filmmaker, as the Hollywood treatment, Carrey's name, and Schumacher's reputation are things that inherently erode from what could more easily be accomplished by a talented unknown director in a less populist film, possibly gaining cult status that could conceivably give the ambitious project a bit of artistic credence. Come to think of it, it's already been done: Darren Aronofsky's first feature, 1998's cult indie, Pi, a film that this most closely resembles in structure and subject matter. Is it a coincidence that Fingerling is a P.I.? (Before you write me -- yes, I'm aware what the first six numerals in π add up to.)
In terms of entertainment value, I can't really say that The Number 23 was a complete waste of my time, but given how much thought obviously went into it, it's still quite a disappointment to see the creative minds thinking this hard to come up with so little to show for the effort. It did have me sufficiently reeled in for the first hour, but, as is often the case with ambitious, gimmick-laden thrillers, they just couldn't close the deal. The film's tension unravels in step with that of the unraveling mystery, not quite living up to the level of interest generated by the theories at hand.
Perhaps the greatest compliment one can give this otherwise unsatisfying thriller is that, unlike most mediocre films, it actually gives you something to think about for hours afterward, as you find yourself consciously scanning for things that somehow relate to the number 23. You don't have to look far for the next instance, as directly below this sentence, you'll see that my rating for this film, on a five-star scale, is evenly divided between 2 and 3.
©2007 Vince Leo