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The Number 23

A Promising Premise Undermined by a Weak Pay-Off

Joel Schumacher has had a long and varied career spanning several decades, directing the good-but-not-great (Phone Booth, Falling Down), the execrably bad (Batman and Robin), the morally dubious (8MM), and on through to the guilty pleasure (Flatliners, The Lost Boys). Making an out-and-out great film, though, has always seemed beyond Schumacher’s talent or preference. He may be a hack in some moviegoers' or critics' eyes, but he's also directed several lightweight, campy films that suggest Schumacher doesn't take himself seriously. He's nowhere done yet as a director, as his latest film, The Number 23, an "edgy", metafictional, psychological thriller, attests (for better or for worse).

Walter Sparrow (Jim Carrey) has a seemingly idyllic life, a low-stress job as an animal control officer (i.e., a dogcatcher), a wife, Agatha (Virginia Madsen), who loves him, and a teenage son, Robin (Logan Lerman), who seems to respect and admire him. Late to meet Agatha for dinner one night, he finds her waiting inside a used bookstore. Agatha has become immersed in a torn up paperback she found sitting on a shelf, "The Number 23". Agatha buys the one-of-a-kind novel for Walter as a birthday present. As Walter reads the novel about a neurotic police detective named Fingerling (Carrey in a dual role), he begins to discover disturbing similarities between Fingerling's backstory and his own troubled past.

Within the novel, the number 23's secret properties come courtesy of a suicidal blonde (Lynn Collins). The woman claims the number 23 can be found everywhere (e.g., in the combination of numbers and names, in the sums of numbers, etc.), almost always as an ill omen. Her neurotic compulsion becomes Fingerling's, which, in turn, leads, inexorably toward a split with his girlfriend, Fabrizia (Madsen again), and murder. Fingerling's manic, increasingly troubled fascination with the number 23 has a profound effect on Walter, who assumes the novel's metaphysical ramblings have some validity in the real world and begins an investigation of his own.

Better known as a gifted physical comedian, Jim Carrey once again tries his hand at a serious, dramatic role. While Carrey received accolades for his lead roles in Man on the Moon (a bio of controversial comedian Andy Kaufman) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, some of his other attempts, most notably The Majestic, were received with less adulation from critics or moviegoers. Whatever the box office results, Carrey makes the role his own, refrains from deploying the physical contortions that made him rich and famous. In fact, only the first few scenes suggest Carrey's comedic timing (something he rarely gets credit for). Likewise with Virginia Madsen who, thanks to her Oscar-nominated role in Sideways, continues a mid-career resurgence with another quietly believable, sympathetic performance.

Not surprisingly, Schumacher's style over substance approach to filmmaking hasn’t gone away. Channeling a Se7en-era David Fincher, Schumacher goes for the muted color palette, undersaturated film stock, underlit, grungy interiors and flashy camerawork, including an early sequence involving a CGI-aided single take. Problem is, all these techniques have been used and abused too much recently to have a positive effect on moviegoers. What was once striking, original, even raw seven or ten years, once considered the work of a visionary filmmaker (Fincher again) has, by now, become tedious to sit through. But, if the story holds up, then at least we can forgive Schumacher's decision to ape Fincher's style rather than create a unique, story-based style for The Number 23.

Unfortunately, style alone is unimportant when first time screenwriter's Fernley Phillips’ story is riddled with logical lapses, implausibilities topped off by improbabilities, and, worse of all, an answer to the central mystery that's trite, unoriginal (see any soap opera for an example), and drearily explained through redundant voice over narration and an exposition-heavy, twenty-minute flashback sequence before we come back to the present and the dilemma facing Sparrow and his family. The big "reveal" is all the more disappointing when it's compared to the first forty minutes, where the mystery surrounding the number 23 begins to draw Sparrow into obsession and a near meltdown. Pity that neither Phillips nor Schumacher could come up with anything better.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Stars


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