By Brian Rentschler
Short version: This movie drives an already silly premise straight into the ground, primarily with a weak script and uneven direction.
Joel Schumacher's movies have always been hit-or-miss for me. I really liked Falling Down, but Batman and Robin was a stinkbomb. Veronica Guerin was well-made (albeit morbid), but Phone Booth was underwhelming. His directing style in this movie is uneven; some parts are hokey and overblown, while others seem to be just right. Overall, the problem is that the weak script (written by Fernley Phillips) just doesn't give him much to work with. There is plenty of talent and technical competence on display here; it's just utilized in the wrong way.
Almost from the first frame, this movie lets the viewer know that weird things are happening. Walter Sparrow (played by Jim Carrey) is an animal control officer who tries to catch a stray dog. He does that kind of thing all the time, but somehow he ends up being bitten by the dog. He tries to catch the same dog a little later, but the dog disappears after he chases it into a cemetery.
Movie cliché #827: Strange things always happen in cemeteries.
While he is talking to his wife Agatha (played by Virginia Madsen) about the incident, she mentions to him that she has come across an interesting book. It's called The Number 23, and it's by an unknown author named Topsy Kretts. Walter quickly becomes engrossed in the book, written from a first-hand perspective about a detective named Fingerling (played by Jim Carrey). There is a suicide blonde (quite literally) who causes Fingerling's life to take a turn for the worse, mainly because of her obsession with the number 23. Anytime she sees the two numbers forwards, backwards or in a combination that can be added up to 23, she goes farther and farther off the deep end. Fingerling quickly develops the same obsession with the number 23, and that obsession starts to have an effect on his life. In particular, it affects his relationship with his girlfriend, Fabrizia (played by Virginia Madsen), who ends up leaving him for his colleague, Dr. Miles Phoenix (played by Danny Huston). Fabrizia soon turns up dead, and through an unfortunate series of events, Dr. Phoenix takes the fall for the murder even though he's innocent.
As Walter reads through the book, he is astonished by the similarities between Fingerling and himself — details about his upbringing, details about his current life, etc. He goes to talk to Professor Isaac French (played by Danny Huston), who is a friend of the family. Professor French explains that the person who wrote the book is undoubtedly someone who knows Walter, and that the number 23 has actually had a great deal of significance throughout history. At this point, Walter realizes he is becoming obsessed with the number 23 himself. His relationship with his wife begins to suffer, and he starts having nightmares about her being murdered. Their son Robin (played by Logan Lerman) realizes that he may have found a way to get in contact with the author of the book, and Walter figures out that by circling every 23rd word on every 23rd page, he can reveal a message that could give him all the answers he is seeking. But will he be able to figure everything out before his obsession with the number 23 completely destroys his life?
The main problem with this movie is the script. Being obsessed with a particular number is just a hokey, silly premise in the first place. In the hands of the right people, I suppose it might have been possible to develop a compelling storyline, but this movie doesn't help the viewer get to know the characters well enough for the story to be truly scary and creepy. The reason behind the obsession with the number 23 is explained (sort of), but it's hardly a revelation. There were also a surprising number of details and story developments that I thought were pertinent to what was revealed at the end, but they only turned out to be red herrings. I can tolerate a few red herrings in a story if there is a bigger payoff at the end, but that didn't happen here. The way the whole story was told and the way the ending was revealed just didn't work for me; the big payoff wasn't there.
Jim Carrey, Virginia Madsen and Danny Huston are all capable actors. Each of them has done work over the years that is worth seeing, but not in this movie. They seem to be doing the best they can with the material they have, but without a strong script, even the best actors on the planet would have a tough time pulling things out of the gutter. Overall, I didn't find the movie very scary, suspenseful or compelling. The ending was not predictable enough for me to guess, but I still felt underwhelmed and frustrated after the movie was over. Jim Carrey has shown that he can do more than just maniacal comedy, but he can do better than The Number 23.