Every once in a great while, a work of cinema comes along and challenges the viewer to re-examine fundamental assumptions, to see the world in a revolutionary new way. The Number 23 is not one of those films. On the other hand, it does make you think . . . that Jim Carrey's career is not what it once was. That February is a stinky time to go to the movies. More than anything else, though, The Number 23 makes you think director Joel Schumacher henceforth should be forcibly restrained from directing.
Think about it. In any other profession, if you don't know what you're doing, you don't get to do it. Doctors don't lose patients, and lawyers don't lose cases, and just continue doing business as usual. They get drummed out of the field. In a sane world, the same principle would apply to Hollywood filmmakers: Make too many irredeemably moronic movies and your membership in the Director's Guild gets revoked.
With a track record that includes such big-screen boneheadedness as The Lost Boys, The Incredible Shrinking Woman, Bad Company, 8MM, Dying Young, the Mr. T vehicle D.C. Cab and Flawless (which paired Robert De Niro with Philip Seymour Hoffman and still managed to go almost straight to video), Schumacher should have been on probation a decade ago.
Those are brain-dead, truly awful films. But they look like Citizen Kane compared to The Number 23. Carrey slums his way through this painfully artless nonsense in the role of Walter Sparrow, a dog catcher who becomes convinced he's the subject of a paperback his wife (Virginia Madsen) has picked up in a used book shop. The tattered tome tells the tale of a detective driven insane by his obsession with the titular digit. Walter's life story bears a more than passing resemblance to that of the detective, and the more he reads, the more he, too, becomes obsessed with the number and its apparent cosmic significance.
Sparrow shares his revelation with a psychologist played by a squandered Danny Huston. Every person has 46 chromosomes, he explains excitedly, 23 from each parent! The tilt of the Earth's axis is 23 degrees! Huston sensibly points out that Walter sees 23 everywhere because he's looking for it everywhere. Despite receiving this advice, Carrey's character is soon reduced to renting a room in a flophouse, where he scrawls 23-related equations on reams of paper, on the walls and on his arms. Unfortunately, this is not just ridiculous and dull; it's also irrelevant to the story.
The central mystery, after all, concerns the connection between Walter Sparrow and the author of the book. The solution/big surprise twist is a very cheap trick, and has nothing whatsoever to do with the number 23 - or any other number, for that matter. The numerology angle is nothing more than a gimmick thrown in to distract viewers from the thinness of the script. And maybe appeal to the math-geek demographic.
Ordinarily, even a disappointing picture has something to recommend it - a memorable scene or two, a unique performance, a tantalizing new special effect. This is not the case here. A waste of both the talent it took to make it and the time it takes to watch it, The Number 23 is virtually without value - artistic, entertainment or even numerical.