It shouldn’t come as a surprise, I suppose, that in an industry fixated on age, waistlines and box-office returns, a screenplay about numerological obsession became a buzzed-about “spec” script and is now a big-budget thriller starring Jim Carrey — two of him, for anyone who’s counting. A Pi for the pre-algebra set, The Number 23, which was written by the young British screenwriter Fernley Phillips and directed by Joel Schumacher,is all about numbers — most of all, the ones following the dollar signs that undoubtedly danced in Phillips’ head after he stumbled upon his high-concept hook, and which lit up the eyes of his producers once they learned Carrey was onboard. And one can only imagine the delight of the studio marketing department when it realized the promotional possibilities: a February 23 release date, screenings scheduled to start at 7:23 in the evening, and much ballyhoo about the supposedly well-documented “23 enigma” (of which, a handy 23 examples — including the Mayan belief that the world will end on December 23, 2012 — are outlined in the movie’s press notes).
Having seen the movie, allow me to throw one additional calculation into the equation: The Number 23 is a zero. In one of his more misguided career moves, Carrey pulls double duty as Walter Sparrow, a mild-mannered dog catcher in a placid Anytown, USA, suburb, and as Fingerling, the private eye who narrates and occupies the central role in a novel called The Number 23, which Walter’s wife, Agatha (Virginia Madsen), gives him as a birthday gift. Sporting a blood-red cover and crude typeface and credited to the oh-so-clever pseudonym “Topsy Kretts,” the self-published tome tells a noirish tale of hard-boiled dicks and dangerous dames, one of whom, Fabrizia (also played by Madsen), believes that her life is being controlled by that pesky prime number of the title. Oh, and she gets off on having Fingerling hold a knife to her throat while he fucks her. And Fingerling kind of gets off on it too, although watching the clean-cut, Canadian Carrey trying to play a kinky sex fiend (complete with slicked-back hair and a body full of elaborate tattoos) is a bit like when Pat Boone momentarily reinvented himself as a heavy metal rocker. Except that Boone was being intentionally funny.
Not that Carrey is any more convincing as a guy who would want to read about the exploits of a guy like Fingerling in the first place. The character is so repellent that his audience would seem to be limited to pale-skinned shut-ins with self-esteem issues. Yet, it’s the central conceit of The Number 23 that the more Walter reads, the more he can’t put the book down. He sees odd parallels between Fingerling’s life and his own — a childhood memory here, a biographical detail there — until he too starts to believe that he is at the mercy of a grand numeric conspiracy. Walter even claims to receive coded messages from a stray dog called Ned (N = 14, E = 5, D = 4; 14 + 5 + 4 = 23) and begins inking his forearm with messages like “Kill her.” Which is about the time you’d think that kindly Agatha would suggest a return visit to Barnes & Noble. But no: Supportive spouse that she is, she keeps prodding Walter to read through to the end, and even puts on her own detective cap once he determines that the book is leading him to solve the murder of a long-missing college coed.
There’s a germ of a good idea in The Number 23, about the power that books — and certainly movies — can exert on us, and how the exotic lives they proffer can sometimes seem preferable to our own. Watching it, I was occasionally reminded of one of the great, neglected movies of the 1970s, They Might Be Giants, in which George C. Scott is a widower lawyer who believes himself to be Sherlock Holmes. You also don’t have to look too hard to see the lipstick traces of another, better-known movie about an average Joe (or rather, Jack) whose regimen of all writer’s block and no play ends up making things very scary for his wife and young son. But Phillips is less interested in exploring an idea than he is in contorting the plot of The Number 23 into one pretzel-shaped machination more elaborate than the next, and Schumacher, for his part, doesn’t direct the movie so much as he layers on gobs of gauzy “style” until the fantasy sequences begin to look like outtakes from a circa-1985 Elizabeth Taylor perfume commercial. It’s all a lot of smoke and mirrors en route to an M. Night Shyamalan–esque twist ending so arbitrary that you’d have to be Phillips himself — or maybe Topsy Kretts — to figure it out beforehand.
Which brings us back to the matter of mathematics — to the hefty sum Carrey was paid for his services, to the percentage of that fee that his former agents (who Carrey reportedly fired promptly after viewing a rough cut of The Number 23 last year) will now have to pursue elsewhere, to the 95 minutes of your life it will take you to watch The Number 23 should your curiosity get the better of you, and the 10 or so nonrefundable dollars it will cost you if it does. That is, if you can get to it before it closes, for this movie’s days in theaters are surely numbered.
THE NUMBER 23 | Directed by JOEL SCHUMACHER | Written by FERNLEY PHILLIPS | Produced by BEAU FLYNN and TRIPP VINSON | Released by New Line Cinema | Citywide