Numbers have fascinated scientists and mathematicians for centuries. They have offered people concrete and even spiritual ways of explaining and connecting to the world, sometimes through widely accepted formulas and other times through mystical enigmas. It is the latter that describes the theory behind the number 23, through which all people and events are purportedly connected according to a small Discordian sect. By adding up dates, times, numbers of letters in words, and even assigning numbers to letters, proponents of this belief have been able to link the number 23 to almost everything imaginable. This belief has long survived largely because it is mathematically possible to reach any number if we try hard enough, but those who believe refuse to accept this very simple truth. I am explaining this only because it plays an integral part in the quasi-supernatural thriller, "The Number 23," a film that delves too far into the mysticism of the enigma and holds back on logic and plausibility.
In "The Number 23," Jim Carrey stars as Walter Sparrow, a very ordinary man who quickly finds himself drawn into the mysteries of the title number. The catalyst for his obsession is a novel given to him by his wife, Agatha (Virginia Madsen). The book concerns a hardboiled detective who becomes similarly obsessed with the number after one of his clients, a beautiful femme fatale, commits suicide because she believes she is cursed by it. After reading only the first chapter of the book, Walter immediately finds similarities between the protagonist's life and his own, going back to his childhood. Where their personal similarities end, the number 23 takes over, as Walter begins to see it popping up everywhere - in his birthday, his address, his social security number, the letters in his name. As he explains all of this to Agatha, she brushes it off as mere coincidence - as any sane person would - but Walter cannot escape the disturbing feeling that the events in the book too closely mirror his own life.
Through a series of events that are too complicated (and ridiculous) to be summarized here, Walter becomes convinced that the self-published book's author - the dubiously named Topsy Kretts - was responsible for the grisly murder of a 23-year-old girl and that the novel is a morbid fictionalization of the whole affair. This leads him on a quest to find the man (or woman) responsible, a quest that allows for several wrong turns and red herrings to pad out the very thin storyline before the final twist is revealed. Also stretching the running length is a series of genuinely bizarre visualizations of the events in the book, a particularly lurid and pulpy detective story. In these visualizations, Walter sees himself as the detective, named Fingerling, Agatha as his fetishistic lover, and their mutual friend Isaac (Danny Huston) as a psychiatrist. Rather than add anything of particular interest to the story or characters, however, these sequences do little more than indulge director Joel Schumacher's pathological need to visually hyperbolize every scene of the movie.
While these fantasy sequences provide some interesting opportunities for the cast, the actors' efforts are ultimately lost in the excess of visual effects and emphatic artiness of the set design. Worse is first-time screenwriter Fernley Phillips' amateurish attempt at evoking the sexy banter of old Hollywood film noir. Too often, it comes across as a bad parody, and Carrey's reputation as a comedian does not help, in spite of his wholehearted dedication. But Schumacher doesn't stop with the fantasy scenes. Even the "reality" in the film is bogged down by overwrought visuals, taking us even further out of the story.
A fine cast is basically wasted, which is a shame given what they have to offer. Though I was prepared to dismiss Jim Carrey, I must admit that he is surprisingly effective in his dual role, especially as the hardboiled Fingerling, where he displays a darkness and raw sexuality that he has never shown before. Likewise, Virginia Madsen passes bravely from caring wife to dark vixen, but Agatha's motives are never sufficiently explained, particularly her reason for buying Walter the book in the first place, seemingly on a whim. Up-and-comer Lynn Collins plays three roles in the film, one in which she is dead, another in which she is silent and commits suicide, the third in which she spouts some truly horrendous lines before committing suicide. Some sound career advice for her would be to stay as far away from Joel Schumacher as possible.
The biggest problem with "The Number 23" is that it flatly expects the audience to be as intrigued by the number as much as Walter is and to completely buy into the enigma behind it. Watching the film, I was reminded of an episode of the original "Twilight Zone" series called "Nick of Time," in which William Shatner plays a man who becomes obsessed with a fortune-telling machine in a diner. Where that episode succeeded was in its depiction of Shatner's character as a flawed man who allows his insecurities and dependence on superstitions to take control of his life. In this film, we are asked to accept Walter's fears as valid and the number as a supernatural force. Had Phillips and Schumacher given greater attention to Walter as a character, they might have been able to create a more genuinely creepy thriller, but their own apparent obsession with the number 23 gives us little choice but to buy into the superstition. For those of us who don't, the film is nothing more than convoluted nonsense.
New Line Home Entertainment has brought "The Number 23" to DVD as part of their Infinifilm series, and as such they have given it quite an impressive treatment. The disc boasts both the R-rated theatrical version and the 101-minute unrated version. Only three minutes longer, the unrated cut features nothing substantially different. Rather, it just contains a few extra minutes of highly unnecessary sexual content that serves only to drag the scenes on and, in one case, actually results in a repeat revelation. The film is presented in anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen. As much of the film takes place at night and in darkly lit locations, it is essential that black levels be rich and deep, and they are indeed solid. Colors are nicely rendered, and contrast appears excellent. The picture is strangely soft, however, and scenes take on an occasionally hazy look. This is not so noticeable on a regular tube TV, but I find it uncharacteristic of New Line to allow such a current release to get by like this.
The audio is available in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and stereo surround tracks. Dialogue reigns supreme and comes through clearly in the front channels. The rear channels are put to good use on occasion during a few action scenes, and music is smoothly generated, but for the most part the sound is concentrated in the front. English closed-captions are provided.
Joel Schumacher provides a pleasant enough commentary track on the theatrical version of the film. His musings range from informative to anecdotal and even personal. He offers high praise at almost every opportunity for pretty much everybody involved, but there are a few interesting pieces of production information. Naturally, those who actually liked the movie will get far more out of this than I did, although this was really not a bad listen.
An optional fact track is also provided on the theatrical version, which brings up little tidbits of information and trivia during the course of the film. Nothing here is of great importance, and it is essentially a standard "pop-up" feature.
As with all of New Line's Infinifilm editions, this one allows viewers to either watch the film with the special features incorporated throughout or to view them separately from a menu. I chose the latter, as after watching the theatrical version, the unrated version, and listening to the commentary, I really did not want to sit through this again. The first supplement is a selection of 16 alternate and deleted scenes, including an alternate opening and ending. In general, it is very easy to see why these scenes were deleted.
Next up is the 22-minute featurette, "The Making of The Number 23." Interviews with cast and crew highlight this supplement, which does a good job of providing background information on the script and production. We also learn a little bit about the filmmakers' previous familiarity with the 23 enigma, particularly Jim Carrey, who actually changed his production company's name to JC23 because of it.
"Creating the World of Fingerling" is an 11-minute look at the over-the-top art direction and set design for the fantasy scenes in the film. This is followed by a trailer.
"The 23 Enigma" is probably the most interesting of the special features. This 25-minute featurette provides interviews with mathematics professors and numerology experts, as well as cast and crew, about the significance of the title number and the beliefs that have been spawned by it. On a different note, some very odd and slightly creepy close-ups of Jim Carrey spouting off bizarre facts about the number are interspersed throughout.
The last of the Infinifilm supplements is "How to Find Your Life Path," an instructive feature hosted by a numerologist who teaches us how to determine our number and what it reveals about us. All I can say is that I was left thoroughly unconvinced, as my number could not have been further from my personality. Some DVD-ROM features along the same vein are also included.
As thrillers go, "The Number 23" is about as bad as they come. The premise could have worked in the hands of a better director and a more seasoned screenwriter, but instead it serves only as a showcase for Joel Schumacher's overdone Grand Guignol. There is no suspense to be had, and the film astoundingly reaches new levels of unintentional self-parody with every turn. This is the kind of film in which nobody comes out unscathed, and it would be best for all involved to quickly put it behind them. But don't think I'm being too hard on it. After all, I could have mentioned the mysterious bull dog that guards the dead!
For the record, I am 23 years old. As Ferris Bueller would say, how's that for living under a bad sign?