“A lot of people don’t realize what’s really going on. They view life as a bunch of unconnected incidents and things. They don’t realize that there’s this, like, lattice of coincidence that lays on top of everything. Give you an example; show you what I mean…suppose you’re thinking about a plate o’ shrimp. Suddenly someone’ll say, like, ‘plate,’ or ‘shrimp,’ or ‘plate o’ shrimp’ out of the blue, no explanation. No point in looking for one, either. It’s all part of a cosmic unconsciousness.” – Miller, Repo Man
Considering that the so-called “23 enigma” was first described almost 50 years ago, Joel Schumacher’s film based on the phenomenon can hardly be considered timely. Briefly, Discordians, “Illuminatus!” fans, and people with far too much time on their hands have ascribed some mystical significance to the number 23, noting – among other things – that human beings have 23 chromosome pairs, there are 23 Axioms in Euclid’s “Geometry,” and the Mayan belief that the world will end on December 23, 2012. It’s all mildly interesting horseshit, of course, but feature films have been based on far less.
In “The Number 23,” dogcatcher Walter Sparrow (a scruffy Jim Carrey) receives a book for his birthday from wife Agatha (the ever-ravishing Virginia Madsen) titled, gasp, The Number 23. Walter is intrigued by the case the author makes for the number’s surprising ubiquity, but more than that, he notices some disquieting parallels between the book’s protagonist (who goes by the unintentionally amusing moniker “Fingerling”) and himself. Little details, such as identical childhood memories and events, pique Walter’s interest and further engross him in the narrative.
The story, which occupies half a decent portion of the movie’s running time, involves Fingerling’s master-and-servant style relationship with a woman named Fabrizia (A bewigged Madsen) and the Bad Thing that ends up happening. Walter notices further unnerving parallels between events in his life and that of Fingerling, and as his obsession with unraveling the mystery in the book grows, so too does his unhealthy fascination with the seemingly omnipresent number. Look, it’s on his license plate! It’s the sum of the digits in his Social Security number! It’s… the number of times you’ll look at your watch as you wait for this tedious and thrill-less thriller to end.
Carrey, like so many comic actors before him, desperately wants us to take him seriously. His past success in making audiences laugh may be his undoing, however, as every other line he utters draws involuntary titters from the audience. To be fair, some of this can be attributed to Fernley Phillips’ preposterous script, which sees characters utter lines like, “Is 23 a blessing or a curse?” and asks us to believe a dogcatcher routinely carries a tranquilizer gun in his overnight bag. The book itself looks about as thick as a J. Peterman catalog, and yet it takes Walter six days to read the damn thing?
“The Number 23” is pretty to look at, and the way in which Fingerling’s universe bleeds into Walter’s is something to behold, but just because you use the cinematographer from “Requiem for a Dream” and “Pi” (Matthew Libatique) doesn’t make you Darren Aronofsky, and Schumacher should know this by now (he previously poached him for “Tigerland” and “Phone Booth”).
As I hinted earlier, the apparent pervasiveness of the number 23 is more attributable to specious math than it is to some grand conspiracy, never mind that the whole thing started as a joke in the first place. And yet the improbability of these particular digits appearing everywhere in “The Number 23” is nowhere near as far-fetched as the movie’s eventual outcome, which is so pat it makes you wonder if Phillips wasn’t writing the script for a class assignment and was simply unable to continue after “Pencils down.” “The Number 23” is goofy, implausible, and funny in all the wrong ways, and if the cool reception it received at the screening I attended is any indication, keep your eyes open for a third “Ace Ventura” flick in the summer of 2008.