Imagine my surprise to learn that The Number 23 has nothing, in fact, to do with the number 23. Like many another “meaningful” numeral, 23 has vexed the insufficiently busy for years; the phenomenon even has a name — the 23 Enigma. While it allowed for a creepy (and sometimes tasteless) marketing campaign by New Line Cinema — everything from Caesar’s stab wounds to your mother-in-law’s birthdate can somehow be traced back to 23 — it doesn’t add up to much in the movie. The film isn’t even finally about one man’s obsession with 23; it’s a generic twist-ending thriller in which the meaning of 23, and all else, recedes into absurdity.
With a director like Joel Schumacher (whose past work, to put it kindly, has gone over the top) and a star like Jim Carrey (ditto), The Number 23 should’ve been a guilty-pleasure thriller whose style is as loopy as its premise (think of Dead Again or Shattered, or much of Brian De Palma’s output). But Schumacher is in his clenched, “realistic” mode here, and Carrey gives a grim, exhausted performance that would better suit a more serious movie. He’s expressive exactly once here, when he tosses a noose onto the floor with a film noir flourish. Unlike Robin Williams, who has been down this look-Ma-I’m-a-psycho road, Carrey’s mind doesn’t seem to be racing; his body is. His manic charge is all physical. His body is his tool, and when he can’t use it (as he did, much more expressively, in his best serious effort, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) he’s a void.
Carrey is Walter Sparrow, a vaguely depressed animal-control officer. Walter runs across an ominous dog named Ned, who bites him and leads him to a cemetery — to one gravestone in particular. Remember that, because nothing in this sort of movie is random. Neither is the fact that Walter’s wife Agatha (Virginia Madsen) buys him a book called The Number 23, packed with details that seem uncomfortably close to Walter’s life. Purportedly fiction, it’s about a detective named Fingerling, who plays the saxophone and dallies a lot with femmes fatales with names like Fabrizia and Suicide Blonde. (Carrey plays Fingerling in the segments we see from the book, looking like he’s in an In Living Color spoof of film noir.) Walter soon grows obsessed with 23, seeing it or permutations of it everywhere, while stray dogs everywhere presumably frisk about uncaught.
I’ve been as harsh on Joel Schumacher as anyone, but he proved in Phone Booth that he can pull it together and deliver a trim, effective thriller. Then again, Schumacher had a script from old hand Larry Cohen; here he’s got one from first-timer Fernley Phillips, who seems to have sprinkled the 23 Enigma stuff onto a standard-issue psychodrama and not bothered to tie it all together. Schumacher’s work here seems dispirited and sour when it isn’t simply bland, and for once in my life I yearned for the madcap Schumacher of those awful Batman films, which at least came off as though the director was having fun (even if we weren’t). And if you’re not going to have fun making, or watching, a thriller, what’s the point?
Everything in The Number 23 is locked — mathematically, you could say — into the big reveal at the end. Since there aren’t many places for this sort of thriller to go, you guess where it’s going pretty easily. And it’s a big letdown after the first half, which promises a dark portrait of a man who gets numerologically in over his head. 23 is treated here as if it were a mental virus, infecting everyone who hears about it and making them run around in vicious circles. But really it has no relevance to the Thing That’s Being Hidden, which has more to do with garden-variety jealousy and the idiocy of someone discovering a bloody corpse and picking up a bloody knife. Then there’s that damn dog Ned, who keeps turning up, and a skeleton discovered in a park, and a scene where Walter mails 23 empty boxes. This movie is insane, and deserved an insane approach. What it gets is a director and cast treating it with ridiculous sincerity.