The Number 23

(2007) no stars R
95 min. New Line Cinema. Director: Joel Schumacher. Cast: Jim Carrey, Virginia Madsen, Danny Huston, Rhona Mitra, Logan Lerman.

It's not every day that a thriller comes along that's so intensely scary that it can actually drive an audience insane. Okay, just kidding. Replace the word "scary" with "stupid," and you get Joel Schumacher's The Number 23. It's the first and hopefully last film of 2007 to earn a "turkey" rating, so no fair taking that first sentence out of context, New Line.

The Number 23 is so bad that it apparently inspired Jim Carrey to fire his agents, but surely he read the script himself before signing on, right? Right? Or maybe, like his character Walter Sparrow, Carrey simply said, "And have some writer fill my head with nonsense? I'll wait for the movie." Sparrow's comment refers to an ill-advised birthday gift from his wife: a self-printed, self-published book titled "The Number 23: A Novel of Obsession," by Topsy Kretts (sigh). Sparrow affirms his anti-literacy by taking days to read the slim volume despite his own supposed obsession with it.

Sparrow becomes obsessed because of suspicious similarities between himself and the novel's protagonist, a gumshoe driven to distraction by the conspiratorial phenomenon of the titular digits. And here I pause to mourn the passing, thirteen days ago, of Robert Anton Wilson. Wilson, sometimes with Robert Shea, wrote at length about "the 23 Enigma." With tongue firmly in cheek, Wilson tattled about this sham conspiracy, a lesson in the power of mind over matter.

New Line's press notes credit Wilson and Shea, but expend more energy attempting breathlessly to vivify the number's spooky supernature. 23 Knights Templar! Shakespeare: born and died on April 23! Benjamin Harrison was our 23rd President! Okay, I don't really get that last one. Convenient sums can also prove 23's significance, like September 11, 2001 becoming "9+11+2+0+0+1=23." Schumacher and well-paid screenwriter Fernley Phillips add to the injury of Wilson's death with insipid insult, by dragging Wilson into the cinematic mess by way of indirect homage: a character named Dr. Sirius Leary (R.U. Sirius and Timothy Leary ran in Wilson's circle), a flash of the word "Illuminati" in the Imaginary Forces-designed credits.

Those credits betray Schumacher's real inspiration: David Fincher. Fincher, whose Zodiac premieres next week, should have patented his visual look; he could've been funding his own films by now. The Fincherian gloom of DP Matthew Libatique's visuals occasionally breaks out into surreal, digitally enhanced visualizations of dreamy scenes from the book's pages, but nothing can save us from the warmed-over-Shining plot, with Carrey cracking up and fearing he'll bump up off his wife (Virgina Madsen, who can't get a break this week at the movies; see The Astronaut Farmer or, rather, don't).

The early scenes feature a quippy Carrey in ridiculous situations. Sparrow works for the Department of Animal Control, which—according to Phillips' script—requires mandatory psychological counseling after an animal bite (y'know, like cops when they discharge their weapons!). Let's just say it doesn't get any more believable as it goes along, with unbelievable characters and idiotic dialogue breeding like rabbits.

There's Sparrow's inexplicably metrosexual teen son (Logan Lerman), who's thrilled to play junior detective when he should be calling Child Protective Services. There's Danny Huston as the professor who tells his class, "We'll talk about Wilhelm Reich next week" (another chintzy Wilson allusion) before explaining the 23 Enigma to the audience. And Bud Cort shows up to play the mad-doctor Leary. Rhona Mitra turns up in a similarly pivotal role that, mercifully for her career, unspools in a few short minutes.

The Number 23 clumsily attempts to mainstream an old joke of the subculture by turning it into a disposable thriller. Trust me when I say that the plot makes no sense, Carrey is thoroughly embarrassed, and Schumacher's movie is all dressed up with nowhere to go. Allow me to paraphrase the Beatles: though the holes were rather small, I had to count them all. Now we know how many holes it takes to fill The Number 23.

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