The Number 23, released in 2007 and directed by Joel Schumacher, is a confusing and strange movie. I remember watching it for the first time not long after it came out on DVD. I was, and still am, a big fan of Jim Carrey; he has played some iconic comedic roles and is a great dramatic actor given the right material. I rented this from Movie Gallery when that was still a thing, and I watched it twice before I had to return it. I don’t know why I was compelled to watch it multiple times because it is not a very good movie, but there is something about the neo-noir style and early 2000s rock music video vibe that draws my attention and glues me to the screen.
Walter Sparrow is an animal control worker. Through a series of convoluted events involving a jilted woman, a birthday, and a dog, Walter gets his hands on a book titled The Number 23. The book is eerily similar to Walter’s own life, and he begins to go crazy as he notices the bizarre similarities to his past and present life. His wife, Agatha, played by Virginia Madsen, initially ignores his obsession but begins to get worried as he loses sleep and becomes obsessed with the number.
The performances here are strange; Jim Carrey seems confused with what kind of role he is playing. There are moments when he does a decent job portraying the obsessive Walter, and there are other moments where he is almost laughably bad. I will slightly commend him for his dual role performance. The movie also has fictional segments from the book portrayed by the actors in the reality of the film. The two primary characters in the book world are the laughably named Fingerling and Fabrizia. When these segments aren’t filmed like an alt-rock music video from 2002 they are visually interesting. I may be in the minority, but I like the heavenly lit white room where Fingerling talks to the Suicide Blonde, played by Lynn Collins. I like the over the top hard-boiled nature of this story, and there is a surreal tone that the movie sometimes has that I wished and I wished it went further. Elements of the film reminded me of the much more competent Lost Highway, directed by David Lynch. They both deal with the murder of someone close to the protagonist, and mistaken or lost identity plays a huge role. I feel like The Number 23 wants to be both a surreal, almost metafictional, neo-noir and a blockbuster thriller, and it is unfortunate that it can’t nail either tone correctly. I do believe that Joel Schumacher is a talented filmmaker, and the actors that are in the movie are typically really good in other films in which they appear.
One scene that I found enjoyable was when Walter goes to visit Agatha’s friend Issac French, a local professor played by Danny Huston. They have a conversation about the number 23 and how it can be applied to multiple conspiracy theories, and how meaning is found when there is no scientific evidence to back it up. I feel like that is where the movie messes up; a neo-noir movie about conspiracies and how they can drive you mad is an interesting idea, but the script for this movie is far too convoluted and confusing for it to work.
Unfortunately, this is not a very good movie, but I will say that it is memorable. Joel Schumacher is a stylish director, and he proved with films like The Lost Boys and even Batman Forever that he is skilled behind the camera. This conspiracy neo-noir has some interesting ideas, and the book within the movie is a cool idea, but the screenplay is far too messy, and it completed crumbles in the third act during the twist. Weirdly enough, even though I don’t think this is a good film I will probably revisit it in the future. Maybe it is secret brilliant, drawing you into the convoluted nature of the movie in the same way Walter is drawn into the number 23 conspiracy.