The Number 23

The Number 23Synopsis: Jim Carrey and Virginia Madsen star in the year’s most “mind-bending” (Pete Hammond, Maxim) psychological thriller directed by Joel Schumacher.

The nightmare begins when Walter Sparrow (Carrey), a mild-mannered dogcatcher, begins reading a tattered, used book called The Number 23. Obsessed by the countless similarities between the degenerate main character and himself, Walter plunges headlong into the same dark, seductive world. When the book’s main character commits an unspeakable act, Walter is terrified that he’s destined to follow the same twisted path.

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The Number 23 7.5

eyelights: the fascinating numeral coincidences illustrated in the film.
eyesores: the meaninglessness of the numbers in the end.

“There’s no such thing as destiny. There are only different choices.”

‘The Number 23’ is a psychological thriller by Joel Schumacher, starring Jim Carrey, that was released on February 23, 2007. A minor box office hit, it tells the story of Paul, a family man who becomes obsessed with a novel called “The Number 23”, which suggests that 23 shows up in the most eerie of places around us.

Honestly, I knew nothing about the picture when I sat down to watch it. It had come and gone pretty quickly it seems and, by the time it made it to DVD, I wasn’t exactly rushing to get the latest Carrey vehicle; he’d been very “hit or miss” since ‘The Grinch’. But the DVD was just about everywhere; it was hard to ignore.

So I eventually picked it up.

I used my summertime overview of Carrey’s filmography as an excuse to dig up some of the ones I hadn’t seen yet, but I can’t say I was drawn by it. Then one of my best friends told me that he liked the concept (which implicitly suggests it didn’t quite succeed), and that was enough for me: I watched it the following evening.

I was intrigued right from the moment that it started: over the sight of gritty scrawled credits, we were shown all sorts of weird and eerie dates that add up to 23. Naturally, I was curious to know if any of this was true, or if it was made up. Even if true, does it mean anything? Or is it just a coincidence? My curiosity had been piqued.

The picture proper began, telling us that the date was February 3, Paul’s birthday. Oooweeooh. A dog catcher, on that day he is late meeting his spouse because of a stray dog, and his spouse finds a novel, “The Number 23”, at the bookstore while she is waiting for him. If not for his lateness, she wouldn’t have found the book.

She buys it for him and he gets completely immersed in it, thinking that it relates to his life. He starts to see 23 everywhere he goes and is convinced it means something. His spouse is dismissive, but he consults with a college professor friend about the subject of the dreaded number 23. He begins to have vivid nightmares.

The picture revolves around the number 23, but it also revolves around the book (which eerily ends at chapter 22), and its mysterious author Topsy Kretts. No one knows who he is. But Paul, along with his spouse and son (who is beginning to believe), goes out looking for Kretts, in the hope of shedding light on the subject.

Naturally, things don’t unfold as planned.

Frankly, I have mixed feelings about the picture, as entertaining as it is: It’s all very fascinating to see the numbers add up in so many coincidental ways, but it actually doesn’t amount to anything in the end; it doesn’t inform the plot and it’s irrelevant to the ending. Unfortunately, it turns out to be just a bunch of meaningless teases.

And that’s part of the problem with ‘The Number 23’: since none of these numbers add up to anything in the end, you aren’t compelled to watch it attentively, the imagination stoked, the way more clever thrillers inspire you to. Since these non-clues don’t tie together, they don’t string you along, clutching the edges of your seat.

The result is that one is merely curious to find out what will happen next, to see the mystery revealed. But the brain isn’t fueled, busy trying to decrypt the codes. What appears to be a puzzler at first glance ends up being nothing more than elaborate gimmick. There is nothing there to decrypt and little to decypher.

In fact, it’s so extreme that, at the very end, Paul has to spend ten minutes telling us what had actually happened that’s led him to where he is now – we could never have guessed for ourselves, since nothing clued us (or him, for that matter) into it. The reveal is just the writer’s way to cheat into putting it all together.

Ahem… why try to weave it all together when you don’t have to?

*MAJOR spoiler alert*

In fact, the writing seems to be enough of a problem that much of the picture lacks credibility. For instance:
  • Paul becomes obsessed with the number 23, and decides to start writing on the walls at home – a home that he shares with his spouse and teenage son. Seriously, anyone this selfish wouldn’t have been in any relationship this long. This is crazy hermit or cat lady-type behaviour, not family man stuff.
  • Paul happens to see the dog he failed to capture at the beginning out of a window. Can you say: pure coincidence? The filmmakers couldn’t. But then, to make matters worse, he happens to have his tranquilizer gun on him and he gives chase. Really? I guess he takes his work home with him…
  • Paul moves into a hotel room (room 23, naturally), and he discovers that the 23rd chapter of the book was scrawled on the walls behind the room’s wallpaper. Um… who did the wallpapering, and why didn’t they paint over this first? Why is it there after all these years?

It seems… so… convenient. Ahem.

  • The big reveal shows the dog watching Paul bury his girlfriend. I guess this is supposed to explain the connection between them or whatever. But that would have been something like 15 years ago, given his son’s age, and no dog would survive this long – especially one that was already older.
  • We discover that Paul left his rival to be set-up as the killer. Except that there was no body and no evidence linking him to the murder. So why was he arrested, let alone charged, let alone imprisoned for life? Anyway, forensic evidence would tie Paul to it, irrespective of his amnesia.

It’s all so convenient…

*MAJOR spoiler alert*

Frankly, to enjoy ‘The Number 23’, you have to turn your brain off. Although it purports to be a clever thriller, much like the way over-rated ‘Seven’, the only clever aspect of it is the way the number 23 can be manipulated to represent almost anything – everything else is quite run-of-the-mill for the genre.

Still, it’s a stylistically pleasing picture (Joel Schumacher films usual are, if nothing else) and some of the best bits are the novel readings, which find Carrey playing the private eye and Virginia Madsen playing his lover. Those bits were all inky, with the blacks and whites dialed up, super saturated. It looked great.

However, that’s not enough to make ‘The Number 23’ a must-see motion picture. Granted, it has its share of thrills, intriguing concepts, and enjoyable performances, but it’s far too vacuous to warrant many repeat viewings – unlike, say, ‘Memento‘, ‘Frailty‘, ‘Spoorloos‘, or even ‘Basic Instinct‘.

It’s just dumb fun that adds up to nothing.

Date of viewing: August 2, 2015

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