Jim Carrey is Walter Sparrow, an animal control officer who finds his entire life turned upside after his wife, Agatha–played here by Virginia Madsen–shows him a novel that shares more than a passing resemblance to his own life. But as this obsession with the book continues to grow, Walter slips further and further into the darkest corner of his own mind…in The Number 23.
The Number 23, from director Joel Schumacher, is a very strange mess of a movie.
On the one hand, the movie is tonally and stylistically all over the place. The performances shift back and forth between naturalistic and melodramatic. The movie starts off as a fairly grounded look at one man’s decent into obsession and madness before becoming this stylized pulp mystery before then turning into a Gothic horror story. It’s hard to pin it down as this serious, dark story or a comedic throwback to classic genre pieces and storytelling conventions.
But on the other hand, there’s still this very engaging story of one man losing his tentative grasp on reality and sanity woven throughout this mess.
Now unfortunately, that story is the one told in the book Walter obsesses over rather than the one we see play out in full with Walter himself. The book is a pulp detective story in which a detective by the name of Fingerling becomes obsessed with the number 23 after he meets a woman already driven mad by it. And, soon enough, this book not only drives Walter mad but also convinces him that the book is actually a murder confession from the author.
And while the detective story would work fine enough on its own, it’s the story that inspired this novel-within a-movie that’s the best thing going–this dark, twisted story of a cursed love that consumes everyone involved, driving them full-speed into madness and death. This is exactly what the movie should have been focused on from beginning to end.
Yes, it’s a bit derivative. But its inspirations are the sorts of stories written by men like Edgar Allan Poe and HP Lovecraft. The sorts found in old magazines and radio programs popular sixty or seventy years ago.
This may not have necessarily earned the movie any awards, of course. But it’s the sort of grim yet somewhat campy genre piece Schumacher clearly wanted to make.
The majority of the movie actually presented to us is, instead, a fairly dull one. It feels like filler that exists simply to pad out the runtime of two shorter, better films. Connective tissue between the atrophied meat of the movie.
And, sadly, the performances suffer somewhat. Carrey and company can often be seen, to speak in more theatrical terms, “playing to the back of the house.” They speak in melodramatic tones and with exaggerated gesticulations. But each time, it’s in the style and degree of a scene’s given style or tone.
Again, the general look and vibe of the movie changes changes throughout. But the acting does this as well.
If it’s Walter speaking with his concerned wife, it plays out in the surreal styles of a traditional Hollywood thriller. Carrey and Madsen will speak in quick fits of emotionally-charged shouting as tense, sharp notes of a violin shriek behind them.
But if it’s Walter picturing himself as Fingerling, playing out the story as he reads it, the characters speak in slow, punctuated speech. Their words and tone and inflection conjuring up images of a dark office and a smoking hot blonde lit only by her cigarette. The brass section playing a sensual, alluring tune.
A GENERAL RULE
If the movie is anything, it’s consistent in its inconsistencies. But, again, this doesn’t mean the movie is somehow bad. Uneven and a hot mess of plots, styles, and tones? Yes, of course. But when it’s good, it’s kind of great. Nothing innovative, but it is especially fresh in a time where stories like it are long out of fashion.
As a general rule, I would definitely suggest you CHILL with The Number 23. However, it must be made clear that your millage will vary. And the extent of this will be determined by your interests in classic pulp magazines and radio serials–in Gothic tales where the allure lies in being made witness to inner-demons slowly consuming a man from head-to-toe.