Film reviews and more since 2009

The Number 23 (2007) review

Dir. Joel Schumacher

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★★½

I remember The Number 23 being heavily promoted ahead of its theatrical release in February 2007. I had seen the thriller’s poster — a close-up of Jim Carrey’s face with various scribblings of “23” covering nearly every available space on his skin — on billboards, bus-stops, and movie theaters so frequently that the image of it has been burned in my retina. Furthermore, it was amidst an era where Carrey, obviously known and highly regarded for his comedic roles, spent the decade branching out into other genres, including classical romance (The Majestic) and drama (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).

The Number 23 was Carrey’s first thriller, and while it left an impact, it was a negative one at that. The film was one of the worst-reviewed movies of the year, and, to many, remains a black-mark on Carrey’s otherwise stellar career (although Carrey himself still holds the film and his performance in high-regard). Having now seen the film after years of letting it linger in my mind, I contend that there is value in this kooky, oddball movie, even if many scenes leave you passively acknowledging that there was a better version of it buried beneath the sheer adequacy of the one we got.

Carrey stars as Walter Sparrow, an ordinary man who works as a dogcatcher, and leads an otherwise normal existence with his wife, Agatha (Virginia Madsen), and son, Robin (Logan Lerman). Walter’s life suddenly gets thrown into a tailspin when his wife gifts him a copy of a book called “The Number 23” at a used bookstore. The book deals with a detective named Fingerling and his growing obsession with the “23 enigma” and its various permutations. Put simply, the enigma revolves around the idea that the number can be found embedded somewhere in world events both major and minor. Walter finds eerie parallels between Fingerling’s upbringing and adult-life with his own, and soon becomes obsessed with the book. Both Agatha and Walter’s psychologist friend (Danny Huston) believe Walter is seeing the number everywhere because he’s searching for it, but Walter increasingly grows more unstable and hellbent on trying to find the book’s author, Topsy Kretts (say the name both slowly and quickly until it dawns on you).

You can drive yourself nuts if you try and wrap your head around all the wild ways in which the number 23 finds itself a part of famous events in world history. For example, every person has 46 chromosomes; 23 from each parent. O. J. Simpson wore the uniform number “32” in prison, and the names of O. J.’s victims, Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman, have 23 letters between them. The tilt of the Earth’s axis is 23 degrees, and the numbers “9/11/2001” add up to… you get the idea.

Carrey deserves praise for contorting himself physically and mentally in a role that forces him to act against type. Although he is valiant in his efforts, he can’t help but come across as humorous at times, in particular his behavior and mannerisms in trying to convince his wife of the eerie parallels between him and Fingerling.

Distracting from Carrey’s compelling central performance is director Joel Schumacher and cinematographer Matthew Libatique propensity to insist nu metal visual stylings onto the film. For the first half, The Number 23 repeatedly cuts to dramatizations of Kretts’ novel as Walter is reading it. Some scenes are shot with a junky neo-noir filter. Others are defined by blindingly bright lights. There is no true consistency. The best of the visual scheme comes during our initial entry into this “story world,” where Schumacher’s camera sweeps us across the landscape of a 1950s-looking suburb where everything from grass to forestry looks just a tad too unrealistically lush (in a good way).

What also feels like a bogus cop-out is instead of getting to the root of the number 23 — or at least conjuring up a joyously cockamamie explanation for its ubiquity, screenwriter Fernley Phillips (which just sounds like a fake name, perhaps from a high-profile writer) disappointingly opts to make the number itself a red herring. When the twist is revealed, it truly has nothing to do with the number 23, and the film holds your hand in circling back to every significant development in effort to tie up loose ends. If nothing else, you can’t say The Number 23 doesn’t explain itself, but to put the audience through a barrage of mental gymnastics just to unfold without “23” no longer being integral to the plot feels like a cheat. Much like the images my mind conjures whenever the film enters my end, The Number 23‘s appeal is ultimately fleeting.

NOTE: As of this writing, The Number 23 is available to rent on multiple platforms.

Starring: Jim Carrey, Virginia Madsen, Logan Lerman, Danny Huston, Bud Cort, and Paul Butcher. Directed by: Joel Schumacher.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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