The Number 23 promised to be a sublimely disorienting voyage into paranoia. A little Eternal Sunshine followed by a slice of Pi.
But it just doesn’t quite make it. Too bad the studio won’t take this film back into the editing bay for a little knife-work. It’s about 2/3 of the way toward being great cinema. That last third is pure stink.
The film starts with an interesting premise–Walter Sparrow (Jim Carrey) becomes obsessed with a novela that his wife Agatha (Virginia Madsen) finds in a second hand book shop. Sparrow is intrigued by the way the book overlaps his own life. The book’s protagonist is a detective. Sparrow is a dog-catcher but he collected detective magazines as a child. He also owned a book called Fingerling, which happens to be the detective’s name. The detective becomes obsessed with a woman named Pink (Lynn Collins)–which happens to be Agatha’s maiden name. Pink, better known as the Suicide Blonde, feels terminally haunted by the number 23.
Sparrow’s curiosity about the novela turns into paranoia and he becomes convinced that the number 23 is out to get him, driving him to the same madness and murder as Fingerling. 23 is everywhere–Sparrow’s street address adds up to 23. His name adds up to 23. He was born on February (2) third (3). He met his wife when both were age 23.
Unfortunately the film doesn’t suck the viewer into Sparrow’s paranoid mindset, thanks largely to an intrusive voice-over that keeps reminding us that this is Sparrow’s story, not ours. Not that there aren’t plenty of opportunities to disolve the viewer’s ego boundaries–I found myself puzzling over all kinds of weird patterns in the film. Carrey plays a dog catcher and a detective, bringing to mind Ace Ventura, Pet Detective. The Number 23 was shot in Ventura county (where I live), at places that I’ve frequented (Libbey Park) and if you add up the numeric values of V-e-n-t-u-r-a you get 101…the name of the freeway that runs through the heart of Ventura County, a freeway I drive every day. Whoa, at this point I should be feeling that the movie was personally telegraphing hidden secrets of a Philip Dick-ian reality, something like the way I felt when I watched Hiroshima Mon Amour in a creepy art house theater.
But I just didn’t feel it. For me The Number 23 completely fell apart when I realized that I was watching a rehash of Secret Window (Despite the associations you can make: Sparrow–>Johnny Depp–>Mort, the protagonist of Secret Window. Mort–>Morte=Death. Mort kills his own dog. Sparrow (The Number 23) wants to kill Ned the dog, the Guardian of the Dead. Ned=23. Spooky, isn’t it?)
The third act of The Number 23 is pure tired murder mystery. Tedium. Just keep twisting the Rubik’s cube a few more times and we’ll have the answer. The bad guy will go to jail. Everyone else will live happily ever after.
The last nail in the coffin for The Number 23 was the sappy, Capra-esque ending, punctuated by a gratuitous Bible reference, Numbers 32:23. I left the theater feeling like I had been cheated. The actors, and the story itself deserved better treatment.
Then it happened. This morning I woke with a Number 23 hangover: like Tom Cruise in the Last Samurai, mentally replaying the squence of a fight where he put a dozen ninjas out of their misery, I had the strong sense that something isn’t right. Something isn’t finished.
The wrong person went to prison.
Consider this: we know that Topsy Kretts wrote the novela before Walter and Agatha met. So how is it that Agatha’s maiden name shows up in the novel…unless Kretts was somehow connected to Agatha before she met Walter? And who followed Agatha into the insane asylum? And why was Sirius Leary using Topsy’s PO Box?
These are some serious, diabolical questions left unanswered by the screenplay. And somehow, in the end, I just don’t care.