Gimmicky numerology plus Jim Carrey minus narrative coherence equals “The Number 23,” a visually and psychologically murky thriller that, given its hero’s paranoid obsession with the titular number, plays like a very grungy episode of “Sesame Street.” Noirish fantasy sequences and red herrings galore fail to enliven this straight-faced but silly exercise from helmer Joel Schumacher, while the prospect of Carrey in downbeat thriller mode promises to intrigue as many potential audiences as it turns off, equating to likely midrange numbers at the box office.
Fernley Phillips’ first produced screenplay is structured around the “23 enigma,” which states that all significant events, names, dates and times are somehow connected to the number 23. Witness the historical evidence: Julius Caesar was stabbed 23 times; Shakespeare was born on April 23, 1564, and died on April 23, 1616; and the Titanic sank on April 15, 1912, and obviously, 4+1+5+1+9+1+2=23. (Of course, by the same logic, Shakespeare’s date of birth adds up to 25, but never mind.)
The phenomenon begins to haunt middle-aged dog catcher Walter Sparrow (Carrey) soon after his wife (Virginia Madsen), tellingly named Agatha, gives him a mystery novel bearing the same title as the film. As he reads the book, creepily narrated by a detective named Fingerling (also played by Carrey), Walter realizes he and the protagonist have an unsettling number of things in common. And like Fingerling, Walter concludes that everything in his life — from his birthday to his social security number — is overshadowed by the dreaded 23.
The book-within-a-movie unfolds in a series of stylized neo-noir tableaus, soaked in Carrey’s vaguely Philip Marlowe-esque voiceover, as Fingerling murders his black-wigged moll Fabrizia (also Madsen) in a jealous rage and frames her lover (Danny Huston, unctuous as ever) for the crime.
Life all too quickly imitates art, and Walterstarts having dark visions of stabbing his wife, while their close friend Isaac (Huston again) hovers semi-lecherously in the background. Script compounds its mysteries by adding a dead woman, an ominous dog and enough wacko higher-level math to make auds feel like they’re trapped in a numerology seminar.
Eventually Walter gets a grip and, with Agatha and their son Robin (Logan Lerman), sets out to discover who the book’s author is and why he’s playing all these sinister mind games. As the revelation nears, Phillips’ self-consciously twisty screenplay repeatedly favors cleverness at the expense of clarity, and it remains too enamored of its central gimmick to mutate persuasively into either a probing psychological study or, later, a moving family drama.
Worse still, Schumacher (returning to contempo thrillers after “The Phantom of the Opera”) never finds the requisite visual strategy to convincingly render the film’s parallel worlds. The scenes from the novel contain some striking images, including one room that’s flooded in futuristic white, as well as generally more off-kilter compositions, but the film’s dreamlike dissolves repeatedly undercut any kind of suspenseful rhythm.
As he proved most recently in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (which plumbed the depths of his subconscious much more inventively), Carrey has gifts far beyond the range of dumb comedy; here, however, he’s simply miscast in a role that would have benefited from a lesser-known character thesp. Wearing his hair uncharacteristically long, the actor seems wrong for the role of a husband and father from the start, although later twists do shed some light on why this might be the case.
Still, neither Walter nor Fingerling makes a very compelling central figure, and Carrey’s need to imbue the former with a darkly humorous streak is distractingly palpable. Madsen is OK as Walter’s wife and rather less so as the trampy Fabrizia, suggesting, as did “Firewall,” that the gifted actress may want to avoid supporting-spouse roles in her post-“Sideways” career.
Pic’s overall look is deliberately drab and cheerless, relying heavily on grubby greens and browns, although the color red recurs throughout as a bold if obvious motif. For the record, Ted Bundy was executed on Jan. 24, 1989, not Jan. 23.