Down for the Count
Twenty-three reversed is 32, and 3 minus 2 is 1, which how many stars I’d give The Number 23 if I gave stars, which I don’t. And that one star is dedicated purely to Jim Carrey and his rangy, ragged, totally fascinating performance as an actor on the precipice of his career– I mean, a man on the precipice of madness.
But hell, you can see that Carrey is making deliberate choices as an actor to take him away from the typical track of bad romantic comedies or bad action movies, and toward somewhat more adventurous fare. But that means, alas, that what’s left, when it comes to the big-paycheck Hollywood films, is going to be a lot of bad thrillers or bad psychological dramas, like this one, that think they’re smarter than they are, that think they’re more daring than they are, that make the Hollywood mistake of wrapping everything up neat and tidy even when that’s clearly not what such a movie should be doing. Carrey, it seems, is aiming here, at least, more toward the realm of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but not every film can achieve that kind of crazy wit and insight.
Like this one doesn’t.
Folding back in on itself as it does, the ending coming around to meet the beginning like a snake swallowing its own tail, the film becomes even more preposterous in retrospect. As it opens, dog-catcher Walter Sparrow (Carrey, himself coming full circle from Ace Ventura, Pet Detective) receives a birthday present from his wife, Agatha (Virginia Madsen: The Astronaut Farmer, A Prairie Home Companion): a dogeared copy of a novel, The Number 23, she picked up in a used-book store, completely on a spur-of-the-moment whim. It is this book upon which Walter begins to obsess, and this is the driving impetus of the plot, but looking back from the end of the story, it’s clearly ridiculous for Agatha to have stumbled across the book as she did. Or else it’s not ridiculous enough… which is the problem with the movie on the whole. It cannot abide ambiguity or abstraction, feels a desperate need to square all corners and turn over all stones — it refuses to embrace the very supranormal scariness it wants us to consider, that there could be an underlying pattern of weirdness to the world and all its doings.
See, the novel tells a neo-noirish tale of a detective who becomes obsessed himself with the idea — not an original one to this film — that the number 23 can be teased out of just about anything, from great moments in history to notorious diasters to basic physical constants of the universe, by playing with letters or adding up numerals in dates or just plain counting stuff. (It’s the number of chromosomes we receive from each parent; the letters in Jim Carrey and Virginia Madsen’s names add up, in a particularly kind of alphabetic numerology, to 23; and on and on. Of course the movie would open on February 23rd; the studio will find a 23rd on which to release the DVD too, I’m sure.) And Walter starts to see his own life in that story, starts to see the number everywhere, starts to see his friends and family conspiring against him, for some unknown reason.
But the film — written by first-time screenwriter Fernley Phillips and directed with a silly fury by Joel Schumacher (The Phantom of the Opera, Veronica Guerin) — can only play at madness, can only take the harsh truth of insanity and reduce it to a neat Hollywood package. By nailing down even something so seemingly unnail-downable as craziness, it waffles, never really conveying Walter’s psychosis, actually actively working against Carrey’s intriguing performance, which is, in some ways, a dramatic version of his comic insanity; it’s coming, I suspect, from the same dark place Carrey’s comedy sprang from. But that’s raw stuff, and the film doesn’t really want to touch it.
And so it never really captures what it so obviously wants to, either: a sinister, nefarious force controlling everything, hidden in a number. If it had made us believe in that, it might have given us reason to see its absurdity as an expression of that force. Instead, we can see it only as laughably absurd.