You know what’s scary? War in the Middle East. Rabid junkyard dogs. Current pictures of Britney Spears. You know what’s not scary? Numbers.
The Number 23, the new pseudo-horror thriller starring Jim Carrey, tries like hell to convince us otherwise. But, aside from the occasional pop quiz in 11th grade trig, numbers just aren’t capable of frightening people. During the opening credits for The Number 23, we’re assaulted with such creepy facts as: Shakespeare died on April 23, there are 23 letters in “George Herbert Walker Bush” and the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on 8/6/45. (Add 8+6+4+5 and you get 23!) Basically, according to the non-science of numerology, if you add, subtract, multiply and/or divide a group of numbers in some random order, you get 23! Aaaaah! Scary.
Actually, if you’re adding, subtracting, multiplying and/or dividing in random order, you can get any string of numbers to add up to basically any number you want. Take, for example the eerie occurrence of the number 23 in the Sept. 11 tragedy. If you add the month (9) to the day (11), then completely ignore the two middle zeroes in the year (2001) adding just the 2 and the 1 to the previous total ... you get the number 23! (Add 9+1+1+2+0+0+1 and you get 14. Add 9+11+20+01 and you get 41. Add 9+11+01, you get 21. Add 9+1+1+0+1, you get 12. So freakin’ what?)
Believe it or not, The Number 23 starts out quite promisingly. Carrey long ago proved he could act the straight man in seriocomic films (The Truman Show, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). Miscast though he might be here, he tries to do a decent job. In the past, director Joel Schumacher has given us some unmitigated crap (topped off by 1997’s Batman & Robin), but he lends this film a certain seedy style. As Sparrow reads The Number 23, he starts to imagine himself as the book’s protagonist. The film continuously cuts between Sparrow’s slowly disintegrating homelife and the oversaturated comic book noir world in which Fingerling (also played by Carrey) lives. Visually, Fingerling’s story looks like early test footage from Robert Rodriguez’ Sin City. Narratively, it bears more than a passing resemblance to the paranoid, existential, film noir postmodernism of author Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy (City of Glass, Ghosts, The Locked Room). I’d be hard-pressed to believe newby screenwriter Fernley Phillips didn’t memorize those books in college.
For about an hour, The Number 23 takes us down an intriguing path. But after a while, it’s obliged to start explaining itself, and that’s were everything rumbles completely off the track. Carrey narrates the film almost nonstop, basically reading us the entire script. For all that, the ultimate explanation is incredibly weak. Despite the script’s painful twists and turns, it ends up at the most thuddingly obvious solution. The disappointing denouement also requires Carrey and cast (Virginia Madsen and Danny Huston among them) to spout some incredibly dumb lines of dialogue. By the end, with Carrey freaking out like Fire Marshal Bill, it’s hard not to burst out laughing--which, at that point, is not what the film intends for us to do. To top it all off, if we were to swallow the film’s preposterous premise hook, line and sinker, what do we learn about the mysterious power of the number 23? Nothing! What is its significance? It has none! Why is it even in this movie? Who knows?
And don’t even get me started on the magical dog who wanders in and out of the film. What the hell is up with that?
I wanted to like The Number 23, but I didn’t. It’s an intriguing experiment gone cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs. It starts out looking like an original idea--sort of a murderous version of The Neverending Story. But nothing works. In the end, thanks to some schizophrenic casting, some ultimately slack direction and a script that comes apart at the seams, The Number 23 just doesn’t add up.
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