The people responsible for the new Jim Carrey movie The Number 23 could have saved a lot of time and money and, instead of actually filming the movie, simply printed out cards that could be handed to paying customers at movie theaters across the nation. The cards would say, ‘You have a small penis,’ or ‘Your breath stinks,’ or ‘Those pants make you look so fat.’ Because surely that’s an easier and more cost-effective way of insulting the audience.
The Number 23 is, ostensibly, a thriller, but the only thing in danger here is Carrey’s status as a major star. This film made me wish that New Line had withheld it from critics – at the very least that would have meant that I didn’t see it. Possibly the most impressive thing about The Number 23 is that it was directed by Joel Schumacher, the same man who did Batman and Robin – and he may have topped that one here.
Carrey plays Walter Sparrow, a dog catcher who is apparently among the most Earth-shatteringly dumb people to have ever lived. I’ll save the biggest reason for the spoiler-filled section below (I will be revealing every lame element of this film’s absurd plot), but right from the start we get the impression that he’s an imbecile – and not just because Jim Carrey is playing him with that slightly retarded level of smugness he does so well. Through a long series of boring incidents that leads him to get bitten by a dog named Ned, Walter is late to pick up his wife from work. While waiting for him, she goes into a used bookstore and finds a strange book called The Number 23: A Novel of Obsession, written by Topsy Krett (I guess Dumm Assname was taken). She browses through it (or perhaps speed reads it – she seems to finish the book in minutes) and decides Walter might like it. He refuses, though, saying he doesn’t want to have “some writer fill my head with nonsense.” This sounds like the dialogue of a man about to deny heliocentrism.
Anyway, imbecile Walter does get the book and begins reading it. Walter has obviously never read another book, so when the first chapter has some similarities with his own life – strikingly mundane ones – he starts to think that the book is about him. The movie switches between thrilling scenes of Walter struggling through the thin tome and his imaginings of the contents of the book. The narrator is named Fingerling (not his real name, he tells us, but taken from a favorite childhood book called Fingerling At the Zoo. He says he doesn’t remember what it’s about. What a puzzler), and he’s a detective. The story he has to tell is about how he discovers that the number 23 is everywhere in the world around you, at least when you do incredibly tortured math to find it (for example, 23 is in pink. How? Pink is made of red and white. If you assign a number to each letter of the alphabet, ‘red’ adds up to 27. ‘White’ adds up to 65. Together they add up to 92. Divide that by 4, the number of letters in ‘pink,’ and you get 23. I had to whip out the Texas Instruments for that one). The woman who clues him in to this is so haunted by the number (I’m not really sure why – watch Wordplay, a documentary about crossword fanatics, to see people who have similar manias for rearranging letters and how they live almost normal lives. They certainly haven’t gone mad) that she kills herself.
Walter becomes suddenly fascinated with 23 and yet can’t seem to read more than two pages of the book a day. As he slips into 23 mania he reads on to find that Fingerling ends up killing his girlfriend because of his madness (well, not really – because she’s fucking his shrink, which seems like a much more normal reason for homicide) and he begins to worry that he’s going to kill his own wife. The movie immerses itself in bullshit numerology, and it turns out that math doesn’t work in film. Long division is not cinematic. So Schumacher gives us plenty of 23s created by stupid tricks of depth perception and by the simplest possible math – a digital clock reads 11:12 (1+1 = 2 and 1+2 = 3 OMG), or two kids with numbered jerseys cross the frame in just such a way as to create 23.
There’s more that I will spoil in the later sections of this review, but the plot ends up being so Byzantine and so stupid that I don’t know if I can recount it all. Basically, Walter ends up convinced that the book isn’t a novel but a murder confession, Bud Cort shows up and slits his own throat, a skeleton is found in a park, and a conclusion is reached that is so absurd as to almost seem like a Dada version of Fight Club. And that dog from the beginning of the movie keeps showing up.
I felt pretty bad for Bud Cort, but it’s a small role, and he’s not even credited. The person who gets most bloodied in this film is Virginia Madsen, playing Walter’s wife and Fingerling’s girlfriend in the book sequences. She’s saddled with idiotic exposition, such as explaining why someone reading a book might identify with it. She’s also never naked in the film, despite a couple of sex scenes, including one where she’s topless but a man is holding her breasts, obscuring them. I’ve seen Virginia Madsen naked, so I couldn’t help but wonder if this is a new mandate from her in her contracts, or if she’s just viewed as too old to be naked in movies. Or just that the director is gay and doesn’t realize I’d very much like to see Virginia Madsen topless.
For most of its running time, The Number 23 is interminable. It is plodding and it has a central conceit that’s just plain stupid. The movie sort of comes to life during the scenes from the book, because they’re supposed to be some kind of heightened film noir but are actually just hilariously campy and bad. But the movie eventually comes to a point where you realize there’s no turning back – this isn’t going to be just a run of the mill bad thriller, it’s going to be something bad on an epic scale. The final reels of The Number 23 are so ridiculous that you have to wonder what people were thinking in the editing room. Was anyone ever convinced this was a movie worth finishing, let alone watching?
From here on there are spoilers. The Number 23 reaches its apex of terribleness when, after Bud Cort slits his own throat when he sees Jim Carrey (this event is never adequately explained, by the way), he gives Virginia Madsen the name of a conveniently abandoned mental hospital. She easily (of course) gets in, and poking around discovers a nook where Cort has been obsessing on 23 – and where all the files of one Walter Sparrow are kept. Switcheroo! It turns out the book IS a confession – by Walter, who wrote it after he killed a co-ed in a fit of jealousy and 23-motivated dementia. When he finished the book he jumped to his death… but didn’t die. Taken to a mental hospital, Walter forgets what he did and Dr. Bud Cort takes the manuscript and, for reasons never remotely explained, self-publishes it. And proceeds to go nuts thinking about 23. Meanwhile, Walter, forgetting why he tried to kill himself, is very happy and finally gets out of the mental institution – and literally on the way out of the building bumps into Virginia Madsen, thus meeting his future wife. Jesus Christ. Jesus Fucking Christ.
Anyway, Walter never again thinks about the fact that he was in a mental hospital. It apparently never even troubles him to find out what he was so upset about. And the local police never bother to try and find out why the dead co-ed’s boyfriend tried to kill himself after writing a manuscript about killing your girlfriend and a poor sucker taking the fall for it. For 13 years the dipshit just bumbles along, gets married, has a kid and then has the nerve to name that kid Robin. Robin Sparrow. And then he finds the book, go nuts and remembers the whole thing. The movie ends with Walter going to prison – but happy that justice has been served.
Been served by who? By that dog Ned, it seems. See, Ned bites Walter and leads him on a chase to the cemetery… to the dead co-ed’s grave! And he’s the reason Walter’s late and his wife finds The Number 23 book. And Ned – who is owned by the graveyard caretaker, and we’re told is “guardian of the dead,” (to reiterate: Jesus), keeps showing up to Walter at critical moments. I was surprised that the fucking dog wasn’t sitting next to Walter in prison at the end of the movie. His wife is not going to jail, by the way, despite the fact that she moved the bones of the murder victim at an earlier point in the film. No one even mentions this fact, which seems like something that the police would be really interested in – and something they would know about, since she moved the bones when Walter, not yet realizing he killed the girl, calls the cops to show them the skeleton. Maybe she gave the bones to that fucking dog.
The Number 23 is a movie as bad as any I have seen this decade. It is guaranteed a spot on my ten worst list because if there are ten other movies worse than this one this year I will put my eyes out with my thumbs like Oedipus, and without the benefit of even having gotten laid.
If you pay to go see The Number 23, you are to be pitied. If you like The Number 23, you are to be despised.