Number 23, The (2007): Schumacher’s Psychological Thriller, Starring Jim Carrey and Virginia Madsen

Drained in excessive sensory style, Joel Schumacher’s The Number 23 is a classic case of a senseless, incoherent psychological thriller.
It doesn’t help that it’s burdened with a neat ending that must have been imposed by one of the crucial players for commercial considerations–the clean closure really belongs to another, family-driven picture.

The story begins well, but after the first reel, the narrative gradually deteriorates to the point of silliness of no return. Savvy viewers will be able to detect the identity of the killer early on, which is a problem for a picture that tries very hard to bill itself as a suspenseful murder mystery.

Key question is, to what extent Jim Carrey’s hardcore fans would support this picture, in which he deviates radically from his more established screen persona. Most film critics will dismiss the picture as an exercise in style on the part of Schumacher (who has not made a good picture in years), and as another actorish stretch for Jim Carrey, following his turn in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”

Some mythology is in order before analyzing the film. Throughout history, the number 23 has had a mythical and mystical significance. The human body consists of 46 chromosomes, 23 from each parent. Geometry is based on 23 natural laws. However, many believe that the number is cursed with dark, even evil properties.

As a psychological thriller, “The Number 23” draws on this bizarre and disturbing concept. The story follows Walter Sparrow (Jim Carrey) through a nightmare of obsession, paranoia, and ultimately revelation and self-discovery.

As Walter unravels the truth about a long-forgotten murder, “The Number 23” tries to turn the genre’s conventions by unveiling a new, unexplainable villain, a sheer number. In the first reel, wherever Walter turns, he sees the number 23, or a combination of numbers (dates and addresses) that add up to 23.

On a superficial level, the tale brings to mind Stanley Kubricks “The Shining,” the horror film starring Jack Nicholson that explored the dark inner workings of the human mind with visual menace and disturbing complexity.

Initially, Walter Sparrow comes across as a simple and quiet family man, a dogcatcher by profession who’s good at his trade. One evening, a mysterious, nasty dog leads him on a convoluted chase that causes him to be late for a meeting with his wife Agatha (Virginia Madsen). While waiting for Walter, Agatha wanders into a bookstore and buys an old book, one that inadvertently will change Walters–and the entire family’s–life.

Ordinarily, Walter hates to read, so he reluctantly begins thumbing through the short novel called “The Number 23.” The book chronicles the murderous obsession of a brooding detective named Fingerling (also played by Carrey) with the number 23, and how this number comes to rule his life. To Walters horror, the book seems to mirror intimate details of his own past. Could it be true

The more Walter reads, the more revelatory the book becomes. He begins to notice the number 23 popping up in almost everything he does. Before long, Walter shares the same obsession and paranoia as Fingerling. It seems now that the book not only knows his past, it also begins to forecast his future. And Walter’s future seems to be that of a killer–to the utmost shock of his wife and his precocious teenage son, Robin (Logan Lerman).

Walter discovers that the book is actually a confession to a 15-year-old murder that he somehow seems destined to repeat. He realizes that he’s becoming a danger to those around him, especially to his beloved family. The only way to save himself, to prevent the number 23 from driving him insane, to stop fate from turning him into a killer, is to find the books actual author and uncover the truth.

Is the curse real Has the number 23 taken control of Walters destiny Or is it all just the power of suggestion Does Walter suffer from some kind of paranoia or dementia, or is there a killer out there waiting for justice to be made Will the number force Walter to become a killer The answers to these questions may lead Walter to a truth more horrifying than he could have ever imagined.

Integrated into the main narrative are Walter’s reading of sections of the book and visual reenactments, in which Jim Carrey, Virginia Madsen, and their son play parts. Thus, Agatha becomes in Walter’s mind Fabrizia, a dark, sexual woman from one of the book’s chapters. The screen is always dense and busy but not really rich, because the material is too trashy, lacking any believability.

On paper, the script by the newcomer British writer Fernley Phillips must have been more promising than it is on screen; the dialogue in the early chapters is realistic and sharp. However, as directed by Schumacher (“Phantom of the Opera,” “Phone Booth”), the movie changes visual style and tonal moods all too often-considering that its running time is only 95 minutes.

“Number 23” belongs to Schumacher’s small-scale movies, and for a while it feels as if he really believes in the project, for he surrounds himself with gifted behind-the-camera talents, particularly the cinematographer Matthew Libatique (who, among many achievements, shot Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream”). But, alas, the movie is overproduced, which calls even more attention to the discrepancy between the overwhelming stylistic flourishes and underwhelming narrative logic.

You can’t fault the actors for the movie’s shortcomings. Following rave reviews for his turn in the Oscar-winning “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” Carrey seems determined to prove he’s more than just a funny guy, though he’s not particularly good in this picture; his work is too actorish, he tries too hard.

As his wife, Madsen (“Sideways”) is burdened with an almost impossible part to play. In the last reel, you feel sympathy her for trying to keep a straight face at the preposterous confrontations with hubby Walter, who suspects that she might be the killer and book’s author, after finding a knife in her purse.

When the couple face each other with a knife in the kitchen (“Fatal Attraction” anyone), you know that the narrative and dramatic logic are gone, and that the movie is basically over. From that point on, it’s all downhill.


Producers: Beau Flynn and Tripp Vinson
Director: Joel Schumacher
Script: Fenley Phillips
Cinematography: Matthew Libatique
Production Design: Andrew Laws
Costume Design: Daniel Orlandi
Music: Harry Gregson-Williams


Walter Sparrow/Detective Fingerling (Jim Carrey)
Agatha Sparrow/Fabrizia (Virginia Madsen)
Robin Sparrow/Young Fingerling (Logan Lerman)
Dr. Isaac French/Dr. Miles Phoenix (Danny Huston)
Laura Tollins (Rhone Miltra)
Suicide Blonde/Mrs. Dobkins (Lynn Collins)