Photograph by Christine Loss
Go Figure: Jim Carrey gets schooled in 'The Number 23.'
'The Number 23': You wanted Aronofsky, you'd settle for Fincher, you get Joel Schumacher
By Richard von Busack
IT IS often said that "the good is the enemy of the great," meaning that a merely competent work of art will be shown its place by a masterpiece. What's less often said is that "the great is the dire enemy of the terrible." Inland Empire, released two weeks ago, makes the idea of cryptic numerals frightening—Laura Dern's moment of discovering a door marked "47" is full of keen and nameless dread.
But here comes The Number 23, which never has a less-than-ludicrous moment in it. The story of a man's growing fear of the number is amped up with a Sin City-style story of hard-boiled dectectivery and an Arkham Asylum-like madhouse with a secret in its decaying walls.
Jim Carrey plays Walter Sparrow is a lazy dog catcher who hates dogs. One day, he is called to lasso one, but he gets bitten instead. After work, when he goes to pick up his wife, Agatha (Virginia Madsen), she has found a self-published book by an author named "Topsy Kretts" and titled The Number 23.
It's a hardboiled defective-detective novel about a sax-playing shamus called Fingerling. Sparrow becomes obsessed with the book, and its suggesting that the number 23 kills its characters, as well as driving them to kill.
He gets some help from an academic pal (Danny Huston) who simultaneously calms his fears and inflames them a little; but having convinced his family that he's on the right track, he uncovers the truth behind the conspiracy and the tantalizingly mysterious identity of "Topsy Kretts."
The dÈcor is nothing new, from ichor-stained wino hotels, covered with Mr. Crazy Man scrawling, to crimson-walled family rooms. As the old art-school motto goes "If you can't make it good, make it red."
Director Joel Schumacher (Batman and Robin, et al.) is a repeat offender. He has no feeling for the informal and little ear for humor. The flashback meet-cute between the two leads—she's walking, carrying a cake; he stumbles, smashing into it—is just about the laziest I've ever seen.
Schumacher leaves Carrey to try to off-the-cuff it; check his weird, weird monologue to a dog he's trying to trap, capped with a nice little ethnic slur. But what possible mood is right for the line where Sparrow gives his son advice on his girlfriend: "She's a nice girl—make sure she stays that way?"
Like Robin Williams before him, Carrey is especially vulnerable to his directors. All those mercurial, darting talents need someone to advise them who they are supposed to be in a given moment.
The scriptwriter, first-timer Fernley Phillips, is already skilled in the art of pureeing other people's films and mixing them together. In addition to the aforementioned Sin City, here is a bit of Lost Highway, a load of Se7en and a few cups of Pi.
Only in L.A., where nouveau kabbalists are up late at night crunching their numbers, could a show about the lurking fear in a numeral be sold and mounted. Though in this case, it's really the audience that gets mounted.
(However, to calm any nutters among our readers, let me cite Numbers, Their Occult Power and Mystic Virtues, by W. Wynn Wescott, Supreme Magus of England's Rosicrucian Society. Wescott cites no special meaning of 23 except to note that the Sanhedrin required that many judges in a capital case—one of the only scary 23s not mentioned in this film. Incidentally, Wescott describes 666 as a figure "about which so much folly has been written." He must have been a regular patron at the cinema.)
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