Joel Schumacher, the same director who stank up cinemas with 8MM and The Phantom of the Opera, hits a new low with debut screenwriter Fernley Phillips' hackneyed script about a could-be killer obsessed with a pulp murder novel.
Riddled with fetid clichés and plot holes the size of the La Brea tar pits, this bipolar movie largely is read aloud to the audience by Animal Control Officer Walter Sparrow (Jim Carrey). Walter leads an idyllic small-town existence with his complacent pastry-chef wife Agatha (Virginia Madsen) and their teenage son Robin (Logan Lerman). While waiting in a bookstore, Agatha speed-reads an obscure thriller called The Number 23 by Topsy Kretts (get it? — top secrets) that she buys for Walter on his 32nd birthday.
Although it only takes Agatha a few minutes to read the book that relates the number 23 to all things evil, it takes Walter days of anguish to get through the story of a tattooed private detective named Fingerling (Carrey) who stabs his sex-freak girlfriend Fabrizia (Madsen) to death. Afraid that he will kill his wife in the same manner, the suggestible Walter spirals into a fit of paranoia that culminates in an idiotically contrived climax involving a grave-digging sequence with his son. Sniggers of audience disapproval will follow.
The filmmakers weigh heavily on fleshing out countless examples of the "23 enigma" that equates the earth's axis ("off by 23.5 degrees") with the Titanic's April 15, 1912, sinking (4-15+12=23). A blood-soaked parchment links arbitrary events and facts to the number that Walter soon relates to as the mark of the devil (666).
It's worth noting that biblical scholars now agree that the number of the beast from Revelations 13:18 is really "616" and not 666.
The first third of the picture is dedicated to creating suspense around the numerical phenomenon that drives Walter to take a Sharpie to the walls of his kitchen. You know something is amiss with Agatha when his illegible mural scribbles fail to provoke her to question his sanity. Robin instantly agrees with his dad's conspiracy theory, even if his place in the movie never takes hold as a secondary character of merit.
Agatha seems to have a hand in orchestrating Walter's descent into hell. Some of her actions, like moving a corpse and prematurely knowing Topsy Kretts' real identity, point to her as a black-widow antagonist. Yet her character's mysterious actions are never explained.
The screenwriter attempts to create a Rosemary's Baby kind of background paranoia with Agatha and her omnipotent professor friend Isaac (Danny Huston) sharing what seems like a conspiratorial relationship aimed at Walter.
Schumacher calibrates detective Fingerling's trashy novel-within-a-movie subplot in grainy color-drained film stock that looks and feels like a well-funded student film. The small-town private eye inexplicably arrives at the obviously phony apartment of a "suicide blonde" to find his femme de fetish standing with a noose around her neck. He babbles on about how most of these attempts fail because women don't know how to tie a proper knot so that the victim ends up walking around with a scar for a necklace. The book's subplot involving the number 23 isn't just a barren abstract reality; it knocks the bottom out of Walter's anxiety because it's so flimsy.
The Number 23 is a movie that doesn't believe in itself. When Walter defensively protests to his wife that he killed someone, we can hear Jim Carrey overselling the bogus line so that the audience won't notice the pretentiousness of the script's logic.
Carrey seems capable of doing serious drama in spite of his long career committed to comedy, but he's too oddly likable to play a killer. In any event, he should stay away from Joel Schumacher for good. Grade: D-