Directed by Joel Schumacher. Starring Jim Carrey and Virginia Madsen. Rated 14A.
The main concern with The Number 23 was whether or not Jim Carrey could pull off the lead role in a psychological thriller. Could the rubber-faced fartsmith overcome the juvenile stigma of anything-for-laughs flicks like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and Dumb and Dumber, or would the sight of his impish grin undermine the efforts of director Joel Schumacher (Phone Booth, Flatliners) to build the necessary tension?
Because the first words out of Carrey’s mouth are “Meow, meow” as he taunts a yappy dog, it doesn’t look promising. Carrey plays Walter Sparrow, an animal-control officer who lives an apparently carefree life in a small American town with his devoted wife, Agatha (Sideways’s Virginia Madsen), and teenage son, Robin (Hoot’s Logan Lerman). Through flashbacks, we learn how a botched dog-catching job makes Walter late for a rendezvous with Agatha, who kills time in a nearby bookstore and discovers a short, self-published novel by a first-time author named Topsy Kritts (“top secrets”).
She buys the well-worn copy of The Number 23 for Walter, who soon finds bizarre similarities between the plot of the book and his life. He becomes obsessed with how the titular digits relate to everything from the birthday of Charles Manson to the exact time of the Hiroshima bombing. Agatha downplays the parallels as coincidence, but Robin—who apparently has nothing better to do—fuels the fire with his own observations on the significance of the number 23.
As Carrey quotes passages from the book in voice-overs, we also see him as the book’s protagonist, Fingerling, a brooding, tattooed, sax-playing detective who inhabits a dreamy world tinged with glowing white light, where kinky, role-playing sex melds with murder and suicide. The visuals are impressive when the novel is first brought to kinetic life—kudos to Requiem for a Dream cinematographer Matthew Libatique—but tedium sets in with the constant shots of bloody bedsheets and bodies hitting pavement. As Walter’s/Fingerling’s paranoia grows, the viewer is irritatingly yanked back and forth between the real and imagined settings, and left to decide which one is more ridiculous.
The film features a major twist that’s handy for tying up loose ends but hardly justifies the previous 80 minutes of absurdity. For one thing, if Walter is so riveted by the book, why does it take him a week to read one skimpy chapter? While groaning through this miscast thriller, I kept pondering the preceding explosive trailer for the upcoming Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez double bill, Grindhouse. Now there’s a stylish exploitation flick worth getting psyched about.