In The Number 23 Jim Carrey stars as a dog catcher who dreams of being a detective. That might have made it a strange prequel to Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, except for director Joel Schumacher, who has a thing for splashy thrillers. Instead this is a tale of an obsession which begins on Walter Sparrow’s (Carrey) 32nd birthday when his wife (Virginia Madsen) gifts him with a used book called “The Number 23”. Sparrow starts reading, and quickly notices some very strange similarities between his life and that of the book’s slick detective lead character Fingerling. The film flips back and forth between reality and fantasy as Walter reads, and the story becomes even more eerily similar to his past. Soon Sparrow becomes obsessed not only with the book, but with its main character’s fixation on the number 23. It’s not long before he starts finding the numeral everywhere around him in his daily life. His desperate insistence on finding who and why this is happening to him soon threatens to destroy both he and his family.
Except it never quite works. The problem is part Schumacher’s directing, part Fernley Phillips’ script, and in larger part a complete lack of ability from Jim Carrey. Thrillers just aren’t the right tune for Carrey to dance to, and as if somehow compensating for his lack of familiarity with the genre Jim spends most of the movie mugging and overacting. It’s a problem throughout the film, but it’s most obvious in Fingerling’s fantasy sequences. Carrey plays both Walter Sparrow and Fingerling, and the difference between the two, aside from a ton of fancy tattoos, is that Fingerling comes off like an anime reject. He grimaces and scowls his way through his scenes like he’s trapped in a of gritty, noir version of Looney Tunes. They’re fantasy sequences, so a little hyper-reality is understandable, but Schumacher amps thing up right to the edge of reasonability with dozens of camera gimicks and then Carrey shoves the pic right over the cliff by waving around silly, pointless props and posing like some sort of bizarre male pinup.
Things don’t get much better outside the fantasy arc, when we’re supposed to be rooted in the world of Walter Sparrow’s boring, normal family. The script makes them incredibly ready to put up with Walter’s nonsense. In fact, his kid jumps right on the bandwagon and starts becoming as much of a lunatic as his father. His wife seems only mildly concerned when all signs point to her husband going completely batty and she goes out of her way to avoid considering the fact that father of her kid is a nut. You’d think somewhere along the way someone might at least mutter the word “crazy” behind his back. Sorry, these people don’t think like that. By the end of the movie, Walter and his unbelievably understanding family are telegraphing their every move. The film’s big surprise finale is blown long before we get to it, simply because it’s the only explanation for all the slightly skewed behavior going on in the narrative. The only ones who don’t seem to have it figured out are the characters running around on screen.
The film’s saving grace is in the numbers. Schumacher goes out of his way to work various permutations of the 23 into the film everywhere, whether his characters notice them or not. Half the fun of The Number 23 (and there is fun to be had in spite of its problems) is in watching for the number to pop up, in counting letters in names, adding up figures from signs, and simply watching all the little foreshadowing cues left lurking around throughout the film. Schumacher does such a good job of it, that you’re likely to leave the film feeling a tad obsessive yourself. Don’t be surprised if you start adding up the numbers and letters on license plates on your way out of the theater through the parking lot, looking for Walter Sparrow’s cursed integer.
Is a lot of post-movie number scavenging worth the price of admission? Maybe without Carrey it could have been. He’s too wrong for the role. The part requires a kind of subtlety he just doesn’t have. Jim barely gets by as a dramatic actor, as a crazy on the loose in a thriller he’s more looney tunes than lunatic. You’re not Robin Williams Jim. Get back to making us laugh. Do it while you still can.