Title: The Number 23
Genre: Crime, Mystery, Thriller
Director: Joel Schumacher
Screenwriters: Fernley Phillips
Starring: Jim Carrey, Virginia Madsen, Logan Lerman
Peculiarly, The Number 23 signals the precise nature of its awfulness early on. Walter Sparrow, the easygoing (metaphor alert!) animal control officer played by Jim Carrey, is trying to coax a rogue and menacing dog into his clutches. To calm the animal, Walter tells a story — a nice, soothing tale that ends in a cruel reversal as he slips the noose around the dog’s neck. The dog may as well be the audience. And in case you think this scenario sounds entertaining, I should add that the reversal that concludes The Number 23 isn’t of the macabrely satisfying variety, but rather the heartbreakingly incoherent kind, the sort that leaves you feeling cheated, jerked around, abused.
I worry that I am still making The Number 23 sound too appealing. What I am describing isn’t a nifty genre story with an unfulfilling surprise ending. It’s a movie that traffics in so many red herrings that when they fall away there is virtually nothing left. There are several “twists” in the third act, but they reveal nothing that’s real; if anything, they obfuscate further, since they leave no way to piece the story together. The out-of-the-blue monologue that concludes the film is simply jaw-dropping in its irrelevance to everything that preceded it.
Even had the screenplay managed to make sense, I would still complain that its big secret — the subject of the obligatory multiple-flashback revelation — is a debacle, for the simple reason that it has been played and replayed in roughly a half-dozen high-profile films over the last decade. In the interest of courtesy I won’t name the films (though the fearless may click here and here to learn the identities of two of them), but suffice it to say I dismissed this particular resolution from my mind because I was convinced that they couldn’t possibly be trying this again. Could they ever.
The plot contains a sinister story-within-a-story, and the movie at first drops intriguing hints (not least in the scene mentioned in the first paragraph) that it may itself be about stories — the way they can make people do and believe just about anything. For a while, we’re not sure what to think of Sparrow’s (and his fictional alter-ego’s) burgeoning obsession with the number 23: the movie seems to acknowledge the fact that this sort of thing is characteristic of the stereotypical crackpot (we get Danny Huston as an ostensible voice of reason), but forges ahead anyway. For a while I wondered if 23 wouldn’t, in fact, wind up being the gateway into hell, or something else as gloriously literal.
But no. The answer is at once pedestrian and grandiosely, elaborately stupid. It’s so bad that it almost inadvertently becomes interesting, and the last twenty minutes (the film absolutely refuses to end) take the viewer to impressive heights of inexplicable silliness. Not since The Usual Suspects have I seen a film toss so much out the window so unceremoniously.
Director Joel Schumacher makes a few tentative ventures into thriller and noir stylistics, but he seems uncomfortable and out of his element — the white-drenched interludes are supposed to approximate the feel of old-school detective yarns but seem arbitrary, like Schumacher was goofing around. But to say that he doesn’t have a handle on the material, though possibly true, would be misleading: the material doesn’t have a handle on the material. Fernley Phillips’ screenplay, as it appears here, should have been deemed unproducible. The Number 23 took me aback. It’s a complete disaster.