Quite a few years ago, I made a short film where a character was supposed to have a croquet mallet and stake in hand for purposes of dispatching another character who wouldn’t stay dead. I ran into a problem, however, when I neglected to remember this between the shot where said accoutrements were acquired and the scene in which they were needed. Well, since the film was fanciful in nature, I got myself out of this corner by simply having the fellow produce these makeshift weapons of destruction from inside his coat. Apparently, Joel Schumacher ran into the same situation with his latest offering, The Number 23. Dogcatcher Walter Sparrow (Jim Carrey) checks into a sleazy hotel during one scene without his dogcatcher equipment, and then proceeds to go out in pursuit of a dog that’s been evading him equipped with nothing but the clothes on his back. It seems Schumacher forgot Walter was going to need the nearly shotgun-sized tranquilizer gun that he usually carries as part of his professional impedimenta, and damned if Schumacher didn’t wiggle out of this oversight the same way I had. The scene got a terrific laugh. Alas, I don’t believe that was the intention—and unfortunately, it’s not the only amusing miscalculation in this misbegotten thriller grounded in the supposedly mystical properties of the titular number.
The sad thing is that I wanted to like The Number 23. I’ve been in the process of reassessing Schumacher’s work, and have generally found it to be better than I’d originally thought. (OK, so Bad Company (2002) is still bad and the less said about his Batman outings the better, but there’s more to his design-conscious operatic style than is often assumed.) For that matter, what’s wrong with The Number 23 can’t be blamed on Schumacher—though he ought to have known better than to sign on board this project. Schumacher gamely tries to make something out of the amassed inanity of the screenplay by newcomer Fernley Phillips. And he has managed to pull together a beautifully designed, terrific looking movie that often makes brilliant use of color. What he has not done—what I don’t think anyone could do—is make The Number 23 anything other than preposterously silly.
The whole premise is screwy when it’s supposed to be creepy. The business of the number 23 is, yes, grounded in popular mumbo-jumbo, and yes, if you torture the approach enough it is possible to get almost any series of numbers to come up with the number 23—or at least 32, which (insert ominous music here) is 23 backwards. This does provide Schumacher the opportunity to cleverly work the number—or numbers that add up to it—into the design of the film, affording the viewer some amusing distraction. (But it feels like a less intellectual, repetitive variant on spotting the numbers from one to 100 in Peter Greenaway’s Drowning by Numbers (1988).)
Let’s assume, for the moment, that we’re willing to accept the premise as something profound. Even if it’s asking a bit much to buy into the story’s notion that 23 can take over a person’s life and ultimately destroy that person, it’s less of a stretch to imagine that someone could become convinced of this and slowly—or not so slowly if he’s played by Jim Carrey in a 95-minute movie—descend into madness over the obsession. And truth to tell, that’s more the route the film takes, but it does so in the most ridiculous, convoluted and confused manner imaginable.
It all starts when Walter’s wife, Agatha (Virginia Madsen), buys him a copy of a self-published book (plot-hole number one) called The Number 23 by Topsy Kretts (good Lord!). Reading the thing, he becomes transfixed when he discovers that the main character had a book as a child called Fingerling at the Zoo (I think you get a jail sentence if you get caught doing that at the zoo) because so did Walter. In fact, Walter still has it (plot-hole number two). More and more about the book The Number 23 seems to mirror Walter’s life—if he torments the facts enough—and Walter becomes obsessed with its secret meanings (plot-hole number … oh, skip it).
Since there’s not much story here, a great deal of the film is given over to an ersatz film noir version of the book, with Walter and various people in Walter’s life reappearing in different roles in the film noir—all of which is designed to appear to be driving Walter to commit murder like his alter-ego in the book. This might have worked if it just wasn’t so funny. As unbelievable as Carrey is playing mild-mannered dogcatcher Walter Sparrow, he’s just plain ridiculous as a tattooed, saxophone-carrying (he never actually plays the thing, but it comes in handy for smashing mirrors), hard-boiled gumshoe. Danny Huston—with a little Mephistopheles beard that makes him look like Leslie Banks in The Most Dangerous Game (1932)—isn’t much better as a sinister psychiatrist.
All of this nonsense finally works around to a conclusion involving a real murder, an unbilled Bud Cort (he must have a smart agent) that shows up as Walter’s now unhinged old shrink, a time line that can’t be tortured into making sense and a deadly dull wrap-up that seems to take longer than all the rest of the movie combined. Yes, you can find worse movies out there, but you’ll have a hard time finding a sillier one. Rated R for violence, disturbing images, sexuality and language.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke