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" I didn’t lover her cuz it was right... I just loved her. "
— Robert Redford, Horse Whisperer

MRQE Top Critic

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The Number 23 is reminiscent of Seven. It also calls to mind Sin City and The Omen. Come to think of it, both of those latter titles have seven letters. Hmmm... Doing the math, 23 – (7 x 3) = 2. Ergo, The Number 23 is actually Number Two.

The 23 Enigma

His lips and the reed never meet
His lips and the reed never meet

That’s the funny thing about numbers, statistics and opinion polls. You can make them do whatever you want.

What’s not funny, though, is this movie; its frenetic jumping from one numerological marvel to the next is enough to make Rainman’s head ache.

The poor guy whose entire life devolves around the number 23 is Walter Sparrow (Jim Carrey, The Truman Show). He’s a bored animal control officer who becomes totally obsessed with a book entitled The Number 23: A Tale of Obsession, by Topsy Kretts.

The book was given to him by his beautiful wife, Agatha (Virginia Madsen, Firewall). Somehow the socially-avoidant Walter managed to woo Agatha into marriage and together they have an all-too-smart son, Robin, who’s 12 going on 20 (15-year-old Logan Lerman, The Butterfly Effect). The kid’s already getting it on with girls and he has a great, loving relationship with his lenient and understanding dad.

Anyway, back to that book. Agatha picked it up at a quaint little bookshop called A Novel Fate. It’s a tattered excuse for a birthday present (hey, Walter was born on Feb. 3, get it?), but Walter is nonetheless sucked in by the bizarre similarities between the book’s lead character, a saxophone-lugging chap named Fingerling, and his own life.

The Number Did It

Maybe if Fingerling actually played the blues on that sax the movie would have managed to find some rhythm. But no. While Carrey pulls double duty as Walter and Fingerling, his tattoo-sporting literary alter-ego merely holds the sax on occasion. His lips and the reed never meet and, furthermore, he carries it like somebody who has never touched a musical instrument before.

Fingerling is a detective, supposedly the kind of guy whose voice of reason can talk people down from ledges. Unfortunately, he’s unsuccessful in dissuading a hot blonde from committing suicide. Her life has been ruined by the number 23 and all the walls of her apartment have been covered with white paper in order to conceal her manic, scribbled odes to the number 23.

Apparently writing on walls is part and parcel to the madness that is 23. Fingerling does a similar number (pun intended) on the walls of a sleazy hotel room once the all-devouring curse of 23 comes tumbling down on him.

As the contrived story unfolds, Walter makes some startling discoveries about his own life that make him fear his life will wind up just like the ill-fated Fingerling’s, with murder and suicide on the agenda.

There’s a fair amount of psycho mumbo-jumbo about troubled childhoods and broken lives that tries to explain the all-consuming damnation to which the number 23 can lead. Ultimately, though, this thriller of numerology is like a pie that needs to be baked for 45 minutes but instead gets only 23 minutes in the oven. It’s half-baked.

The Numbers Game

Giving credit where credit is due, the opening credits for The Number 23 are very well done. They’re typed on blood-soaked pages and, morphing in and out amidst the standard cast and crew titles, are notes relating to the significance of the number 23, including major historical dates, trivia, and the numerology of names.

Oh, and The Number 23 is also Joel Schumacher’s 23rd feature-length project as director. (For those keeping score, Veronica Guerin was Schumacher’s “blackjack” project.)

Unfortunately, The Number 23 doesn’t bring Schumacher any better luck than Fingerling and Walter; while he was aiming for a thriller, what he gets here is a clunker.

At one point Walter ominously states, “The number’s coming after me.” It’s a headshaking line that makes one want to reach for the nearest Q-Tip to clear out the earwax and make sure he really, really said it.

He did.

Trouble is, the screenplay by first-timer Fernley Philips is so tightly wrapped around its own paranoia and cleverness with number play that it’s hard to categorize The Number 23 as a black comedy.

There are a couple moments of levity when the movie manages to laugh at itself, and they’re badly needed, but most of the time the film takes itself far too seriously, unflinchingly adhering to a dark and ominous tone. That is, it stays malefic right up until its Pollyanna-esque conclusion.

The movie then changes tone on a dime and suddenly states there’s no such thing as destiny.

Add It Up

Even with all the scenes set in cemeteries, insane asylums, prisons, sleazy hotels and used bookstores, the scariest thing about The Number 23 is how totally unaffecting the end result is. Many scenes are technically well crafted, so much so they are virtually stamped with the seal of The David Fincher School for Creepy Filmmaking.

Blurred and bleached imagery, saturated colors, disorienting editing; all the parts are there for an effective thriller but things simply don’t add up.

It doesn’t help matters that so many things happen out of pure convenience. Apparently both Agatha and Robin get the opportunity to read through the entire book in a single sitting, but at the same time it seems as if Walter never puts down the book. He’s seen reading the book day after day; not rereading it, but simply working his way to the conclusion that everybody else has already read.

That’s when The Number 23 tries to go Biblical and makes unfitting comparisons to the Book of Revelation (which has 22 chapters, as does the book by Topsy Kretts). The film also makes a tacked-on reference to Numbers 32:23, which states, “... be sure your sin will find you out.”

Alas, it doesn’t work. The movie tries to quote the Bible in order to shore up its preachy, do-good conclusion, but it smacks of artifice. It’s full of empty calories, about 23 of them.

Hmmm... There are 46 characters in that last sentence. Divide that by two...