I’m sure there must have been an episode of Sesame Street where the friendly neighborhood of cheerful humans and adorable puppets wanted to throttle the Count, a character obsessive in his love to count things. Throughout The Number 23, a psychological thriller/puzzle movie where Jim Carrey is driven into a state of heightened lunacy by seeing the magical number 23 everywhere (“You and I met when we were 23!”; “Your license plate begins with the numbers two…three!”; “I was born on February 3…2/3!”), I started thinking of our friend the Count. If he had been cast in the role instead of Jim Carrey, The Number 23 might have been a useful exercise for children of all ages instead of a childish exercise that, in lieu of depth, is content to wallow in protracted, circuitous babble.
The number, in and of itself, is not frightening, the way a fear of encroaching death (Final Destination) or bodily harm (Hostel) could be construed as scary. At best, it is a frustrating annoyance, and at worst it is an excuse for director Joel Schumacher and screenwriter Fernley Phillips to ratchet up the scare tactics to such a ridiculously gothic degree that it calls attention to the fact that we’re supposed to be scared of two numbers placed side by side. The considerable amount of hugger-bugger spouted by Carrey and his increasingly paranoid co-stars includes reference to the Mayan belief that the world will end on December 23, 2012 (20+1+2=23) and even has an academic scholar (Danny Huston) go to his bookshelf and whip out a dusty old tome with references to the mystical power of 23, since “each parent contributes 23 chromosomes to the DNA of a child” and “there are 23 letters in the Latin alphabet.”
When a movie star finds something that works, sometimes they will run with that ball for years, bouncing it around until it is completely deflated. Bruce Willis had a couple of years after the success of Die Hard where nobody was convinced he could give a nuanced performance, and was only capable of playing a lovable rogue who shifted between smirking cynicism and soul-searching faraway stares. It took a few prestige films like 12 Monkeys, Pulp Fiction and Mortal Thoughts to show that underneath the star persona was an actor with depth and range. Carrey shook off his rubber-man slapstick persona by doing something similar, acting in more dramatic fare usually involving an ordinary guy realizing he’s stuck in a constructed narrative. In The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, some people came to the same conclusion they had with Willis: there’s more to this guy than we expected.
Unfortunately, now that Carrey has caught on, he’s trying to recreate it over and over again, and The Number 23 feels like jumping through familiar hoops, without benefit of a script as rich in character detail as Carrey’s previous successes. Super-nice, clean shaven animal control officer Walter Sparrow (Carrey) loves his perfect blonde wife Agatha (Virginia Madsen) and clever son Robin (Logan Lerman), but things take a turn for the weird on his birthday when he receives a mystery book entitled “The Number 23” that seems to have a variety of odd parallels to his own life. It’s not long before Walter has stopped shaving, smiling, and speaking coherently, attempting to enlist wife and son in his frustrated desire to solve the riddle of 23, which involves him writing mathematical problems and numerology on his kitchen walls in magic marker and delving into the book all hours of the day and night. The real life scenes are shot in the glowing sitcom-naturalism of most Hollywood family movies, and the fantasy sequences are Sin City filtered through the gaudy Batman and Robin eye of Schumacher, with bleached out skin tones and images so meticulously color corrected and CGI-augmented they resemble a graphic novel whose sole eye-popping (and eye-sore) colors are silver, black, and cotton candy pink.
The story-within-the-story is of a misogynistic detective (also played by Carrey) with a gigantic Red Dragon-style tattoo on his back and his masochistic girlfriend (played by Madsen) investigating the murder of a 23-year-old girl (Lynn Collins) who also happens to have a problem containing her excitement over the hidden power of…did I mention this was Joel Schumacher’s twenty-third film? And as hard as he tries to tap into the leathery fetishism of the kind of dominatrix wardrobe design in this fantasy world, and insert a queasy hallucinogenic quality to the naturalistic scenes (every now and then doing subtle things like having the wife paint the living room walls completely blood red, or tilting the camera on a close-up of Carrey to show he’s become unhinged), he lacks the ability to move beyond surface, show business theatrics—as opposed to Adrian Lyne’s superior Jacob’s Ladder, which was grounded in a kind of blue collar grittiness and, in the hallucinogenic scenes, a freakishness inspired by wartime photography and Francis Bacon paintings.
Schumacher can’t get his tacky sense of style out of the way, and rather than enhance a thin story it exacerbates the sheer implausible ridiculousness of it. “Implausible” is a bit of a catch-word when it comes to this kind of psychological thriller, where every twist and turn takes a leap of faith for the audience. When it’s done well, of course, nobody cares—North By Northwest is one of Hitchcock’s masterpieces, a thrill ride so beautifully orchestrated that the question of plausibility is dwarfed by the fact that, as a filmmaker, Hitchcock sticks to a taut internal logic and has hero Cary Grant either (a) acknowledge to the other characters (and never the audience) the sheer inanity of his situation, or (b) grit his teeth and dive into it with total abandon, In that movie it works, but when The Number 23 fails to balance its alchemy it winds up being fool’s gold.
A critic sees so many films, it’s understandable when he or she gets tired and starts thinking of Sesame Street as a way of getting through the tedium, but I don’t think ticket buying audiences will accept The Number 23 either. At a recent all-media screening, the packed crowd grew slowly exhausted going through the motions of the plot and indeed answered the movie with mocking laughter and, at the inevitable real twist ending following the fake twist ending, a legion of disgruntled booing. Audiences have seen enough of these movies at this point, from The Sixth Sense onward, to spot a seemingly clever “pull the rug out from under you” revelation several reels ahead of time. They could all testify that The Number 23 is a shill—don’t get swindled.