The Theory of Chaos

Friday, March 02, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW - The Number 23

Full review behind the jump

The Number 23

: Joel Schumacher
: Fernley Phillips
: Beau Flynn, Tripp Vinson
: Jim Carrey, Virginia Madsen, Logan Lerman, Danny Huston, Lynn Collins, Rhona Mitra

Growing up I was the math whiz of Springmyer Elementary. As fast as I could write the answer to one problem, I was solving the next one. By sixth grade the curriculum of fractions and times tables had nothing left to teach me, so my teacher gave me a problem to work on. An unsolvable math problem. It would take too long to explain here but it dealt with palindromic numbers – numbers that were the same forwards and backwards.

I spent months on this problem – adding numbers, flipping them around, checking their momentum towards palindrome status, a scrawny near-sighted eleven-year-old breaking pencils and filling up pages and pages with sums. I never found a solution, and believe me when I say it still bothers me sometimes. The point of this problem was that there was no end, but it would keep me occupied. She was a smart teacher to recognize that.

There’s a brain type out there that is irresistibly drawn to the manipulation of numbers, and it’s a fair bet that Fernley Phillips, the writer of
The Number 23, shares that brain type with me. I wasn’t familiar with the conspiratorial lore attached to the number, but I immediately saw its appeal – 2 and 3 are the smallest prime numbers, the building blocks to everything, so if someone with one of these whirligig brains really set themselves to crunching, flipping or condensing just about any number or combination of numbers, they could probably find their way to a “23”.

But what serves well as a story hook carries with it a fatal curse – there’s nowhere it can go. As with Darren Aronovsky’s arresting debut film
Pi, another thriller about a number with a touch of infinity and madness attached to it, there’s no solution that can satisfy the anxiety. Getting there is all the fun, because there’s nowhere to arrive. Rather than follow that film’s mesmerizing march off the cliff, the filmmakers responsible for The Number 23 consciously decide to make their movie much less interesting. At some point, instead of the ends of paranoia, it settles for the most dreadful literalness. I give Phillips credit for imagining a scenario that explains what is going on with only a few medium-to-large-sized plot holes, but he has not figured out how to make it cinematically engrossing, and even the promising lures of his set-up are smushed by director Joel Schumacher’s depthless approach.

Schumacher got his start in the movie industry as a costume designer, and I’ve always found that informative in watching his pictures. He can’t pull himself away from glamour even at the most inappropriate times – there’s a dead woman’s body on screen and I find myself wondering how long he spent picking out that dazzling shade of lipstick. Surfaces are all he knows how to work with – instead of using the insidious appeal of numerology to take us down the rabbit hole with Walter Sparrow (Jim Carrey), he just daubs “23” all over the scenery like rhinestones. It’s psycho chic; to Joel Schumacher, fear is best represented by really bad wallpaper. I ought to be digging my fingers into the armrests, worried about the characters; instead I’m adding up the digits on streets signs.

Sparrow is an animal control officer whose life is stable and satisfying, until February 3rd (2/3), when his wife (Virginia Madsen) finds a strange little book called The Number 23 and insists he read it. Sparrow immediately sees some rather unnerving parallels with his own past, like a death that happens on the 8th birthday (2 to the 3rd power). The main character of the book ends up doing some very nasty things, and Sparrow doesn’t want to believe he’s like that guy; but like that guy, he’s starting to see that wretched number, well, everywhere. And we do, too, since Schumacher has never believed in putting something on screen that we can’t see and understand immediately. In a climactic scene I ought to be trapped in fearful uncertainty of what will happen next; instead, I notice that the musical score has already told me.

Carrey and Madsen each play dual roles in the picture, starring in Sparrow’s mental projection of the book he reads. Within the book he is Fingerling, a police detective who finds that this number has been moving from victim to victim like a curse, and it’s getting a grip on him, too. Madsen is his exotic girlfriend Fabrizia, who picks the wrong time in their relationship to start suggesting certain S&M fantasies.

While Madsen, a recent Academy Award nominee from Sideways, is exquisitely grounded and natural considering what is demanded of her, you can see Carrey straining. He’s capable of reining himself in for sympathetic performances like in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; but here, you can see that some impulse inside him knows this whole thing is cockamamie, and is desperate to acknowledge it. Every time he says the word “Fingerling” you hear his lips forcing themselves away from a pun. He’s just not hard-boiled, so as mellow a parody as he’s presenting us, it’s still a parody.

While the movie takes pains to intellectualy dot all of its i’s, emotionally it just throws up its hands. We’re not here to watch where these characters are going, we’re here to have revealed to us why they are there to begin with. Back when I was the math whiz of Springmyer Elementary I loved the kid detective books – The Three Investigators were my favorite although Encyclopedia Brown was worth my time, too. The problem with Encyclopedia Brown was that every story ran into a brick wall, stopped dead in its tracks so you could have the solution explained to you.

These were short stories designed to train our ability to pull relevant details from chaff, so you can forgive the form; The Number 23 gets no such free pass but tries to pull the same trick anyway, without even knowing how to provide enough relevant details for us to piece things together on our own. Our reward for this often-too-close-to-silly journey is a long, disappointing flashback and the tying up of a few loose ends. You could say it takes commitment to go truly mad, this movie lacks it.


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