There are at least 23 better things to do than watch “The Number 23.” For instance, you could make a list of all the important years in your life whose four digits add up to 23. Or you could just poke your eye repeatedly with a hockey stick. Maybe 23 times.
Directed by Joel Schumacher, this gloomy, neo-noir thriller mixing murder, mystery and numerology aims to be terrifying and thought-provoking, but ends up being yet another moderately interesting and visually disturbing pile of cinematographic puzzles better handled by films like “Memento.” In it, Jim Carrey plays Walter Sparrow, an animal catcher (“Ace Ventura,” anyone?) with a devoted wife (Virginia Madsen) and a teenage son (Logan Lerman). At the very end of his shift, he chases down a bulldog, only to find himself in a cemetery, bitten by said fierce animal. As a result he is late picking up his wife, who ends up killing time by buying her husband a book — aptly titled “The Number 23” and written by someone named Topsy Kretts. The book’s main character, also portrayed by Carrey, is a sexy, tattooed, saxophone-playing detective named Fingerling. While he is working on the case of a woman he lovingly nicknames the Suicide Blonde (Lynn Collins), he finds time to start an affair with Fabrizia (also Madsen), a kinky, dangerous femme fatale. Soon enough, Fingerling finds himself obsessed with the mysterious frequency of the number 23, which has driven the Blonde to insanity. Walter, who gradually discovers odd similarities between his background and that of Fingerling, follows suit, beginning to see 23 everywhere: in his own house, outside, in his birth hour, etc.
Is it a coincidence? The key to the mystery lies within a message spelled out by every 23rd word on every 23rd page of the book. The plot is so unnecessarily convoluted that it ends up getting lost in its own twists and turns. After realizing that there is no way to tie up all the loose ends, the film just gives up and ignores the details that don’t add up. The ending is so arbitrary and disappointing it makes the rest of the script seem well thought-out and logical by comparison.
If there’s one thing at which this movie is incredibly successful, it’s imagining connections out of nowhere and turning the most arbitrary dates and facts into ominous signs. The script, written by newcomer Fernley Phillips, comes up with nearly every possible combination of numbers that would, through some convenient arithmetic pattern (which doesn’t remain constant at all, but that doesn’t seem to matter), yield the inescapable, cursed 23. Here are a few examples: The human body consists of 46 chromosomes, 23 from each parent. The Hiroshima bomb was dropped at 8:15. 8+15=23. Walter met his wife on September 14. 14+9=23! Even if it’s not exactly 23, the movie finds a way to fix that: It can be 32, for example, since, as Walter points out, in case someone has failed to realize, “That’s 23 in reverse!” At some point, the math becomes so ridiculous and amusing that viewers might think they’re watching a comedy. And, if it wasn’t for an exaggeratedly serious Jim Carrey, they wouldn’t be far off.
Carrey’s performance will make the viewers wish he would stick to comedy instead of trying to portray average guys. He fails to give Walter much of a personality, turning him into an awkward combination of moody expressions and a bad haircut. It’s not that his acting is thoroughly bad, though. He is considerably more engaging when playing Fingerling and, even as Walter, he is occasionally genuine and convincing as a man on the brink of madness. The problem is that throughout the film, the acting feels overeager and forced; Carrey is trying too hard for a movie that isn’t even taking itself seriously enough to fix the holes in its plot. As a result, his efforts often have a comical, rather than a dramatic effect, and the characters he plays are hard to relate to or even care about.
Despite its flaws, “The Number 23” actually provides one very convincing argument in favor of the bad karma behind the number it’s so concerned with — this is Schumacher’s 23rd project.