The trailers seemed to set up The Number 23 as gimmicky and just plain bad, but I was surprised to discover that the film was actually OK. I had my hopes up on writing a negative, satirical review, since those are more entertaining for the reader, but, alas, I cannot. Though 23 has a host of flaws and will be forgotten once it leaves the theaters, it is still entertaining and worth a rental (or DC++ download).
The Number 23 centers around Walter Sparrow (Jim Carrey), who receives the book The Number 23 from his wife Agatha (Virginia Madsen) on his birthday, February 23. He begins to reads the book, at which point we see a story-within-a-story structure develop. Here the main character is Detective Fingerling (Carrey), who encounters a violence-obsessed femme fatale Fabrizzi (Madsen) and meets the “Suicide Blond” whose obsession with the “23 Enigma” (numerological idea that the number “23” is related to several coincidences of human existence) drives her to murder and eventual suicide. Fingerling soon develops an obsession with this number, which, coupled with his straining relationship with Fabrizzi, eventually drives him to engage in the darker, more destructive side of human behavior.
From here on, Sparrow begins to see several similarities between violent occurrences in the world in which he lives and the murderous actions that Fingerling commits, all of which is somewhat bounded by repeated sightings of the number “23.” Is Sparrow legitimately seeing these numbers by coincidence or is he adjusting his own perception to see only what he wants to see? Is the book that Sparrow reads just a tale of fiction or a warped retelling (or confession?) of something grisly that actually happened? These are the questions that drive the narrative of the film forward.
The atmosphere that newcomer writer Fernely Phillips crafts has immense potential, but unfortunately the script he wrote to complement his characters’ world does not measure up. The “23” gimmick advertised in the trailers does not really take center stage (thankfully), but there are still some scenes here and there where the writing is very forced. Carrey and Madsen do their best to elevate the film beyond what is written on paper, but there is only so much an actor can do with a fundamentally flawed script. However, this is Phillips’s first movie, so I am not going to be too hard on him here.
The story-within-a-story structure is where the film shines, and it is what really caught me off-guard, as this was not hinted at in the trailer at all. The direction by Joel Schumacher, whose previous credits include Batman and Robin, which won the award for WORST THING EVER MADE at the Chronicles of Human Existence Ceremony (that’s not a real ceremony by the way), is surprisingly very good. Fingerling’s story is presented in a very neo-noir fashion, similar to Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City, with lush cinematography that is a mosaic of very bright colors and extremely dark ones. The original score by Harry Gregson Williams, whose previous credits include Man on Fire and Kingdom of Heaven is good as well and does a nice job of heightening the viewer’s experience.
The film falters whenever it dwells in the “real” world of Walter Sparrow, but the atmosphere is creative enough to keep us engaged. As the film reels towards its conclusions, the execution becomes more and more contrived. The ending to The Usual Suspects caught the virgin viewer pleasantly off-guard both due to its innovation and the way it played out on screen. The finale in The Number 23 is similarly inventive in concept, but the execution does not measure up, leaving behind a bad aftertaste that leaves the viewer unsatisfied instead of thrilled.
To the casual viewer, The Number 23 is not a bad film, but rather an OK (if flawed) film that is entertaining in its duration, but one which will be forgotten once the theater empties.