Story Highlights• "The Number 23" just doesn't add up
• Jim Carrey plays ordinary as mild-mannered Walter Sparrow
• Character becomes obsessed with a novel, "The Number 23"
By Tom Charity
Special to CNN
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(CNN) -- Even as the great and good assemble for the annual orgy of self-congratulation that is the Oscars ceremony, you have to wonder if there has ever been a greater disconnect between the films up for the awards and the movies the studios are pumping out on a weekly basis.
In the first week of January some of us had the misfortune to see the animated kids' flick "Happily N'Ever After." Your reviewer confidently predicted it would make 2007's 10 worst list. Seven weeks later I'm not so sure.
"Epic Movie," "The Hitcher," "Smokin' Aces," "Codename: The Cleaner," "Because I Said So," "Hannibal Rising," "Norbit"... every week brings another dismal low -- sometimes, mercifully, without benefit of a press screening, but often, it seems, heading straight to the top of the box office charts regardless.
"Ghost Rider," for example, has already been seen by more Americans, after just one weekend, than Best Picture nominees "Babel" and "Letters from Iwo Jima" combined. (Who do you think will win best picture? Play our Inside the Envelope game.)
My only prediction now is that 2007 may go down as the worst year for movies in living memory.
Which brings us to "The Number 23."
This lame brainteaser from the dreaded Joel Schumacher ("Batman and Robin") is saved by its own ineptitude. If it actually played as the creepy psychological thriller it would like to think it is, the mind-numbing contortions of Fernley Phillips' crude screenplay would be downright offensive. But it's impossible to take this movie seriously, and as a dopey diversion, at least it's funnier than "Norbit."
Not that Jim Carrey appears to be in on the joke. Here he's earnestly ordinary as mild-mannered Walter Sparrow, a pet detective (well, OK, an "animal control officer") who becomes obsessed with a pseudonymous self-published novel, "The Number 23," by Topsy Kretts. It is, after all, "a novel of obsession."
The mysterious Topsy plays fast and loose with the so-called 23 Enigma, a phenomenon noted by William Burroughs and the occultist Aleister Crowley, based on the number's supposedly uncanny recurrence in historical, scientific and artistic spheres.
But let's not go there -- that way madness lies. What really grabs Walter is that the book seems to be the story of his life.
Sure, the narrator, Fingerling, is a hard-boiled gumshoe, not a pet detective, and granted Walter isn't mixed up in any murders yet, not so far as he knows, but still he can't shake the feeling of deja-vu. (Maybe it's repressed anxiety from "The Truman Show.") Now that he comes to think of it, the number 23 factors large in his life, too. Didn't he turn 32 on February 3? Wasn't he born at 11:12 p.m.? Aren't there 23 letters in his name? (Well, if you throw in his middle name there are.)
Carrey also plays Fingerling in episodes from the book, which may be a stretch too far. Whatever you think of the rubber-faced funnyman, hard-boiled sax-noodling anti-hero is unlikely to be the first image that comes to mind. He's no Robert Mitchum.
It doesn't help that Schumacher, in his wisdom, has styled the story-within-the-story as a lurid MTV noir pastiche. If this is how Walter pictures it, it's hard to understand how it could drive him over the edge (though it might explain why it takes him three days to finish it).
Even more disastrously, the story outside the story is just as hyped up and contrived, and Carrey scarcely more plausible. Schumacher shoots our first glimpse of the manuscript as if it were Tolkien's ring, drawing the characters to their destiny (the bookstore is actually called A Novel Fate). A dog that plays an improbable supporting role is nicknamed Guardian of the Dead because of his fondness for tombstones.
But these playful supernatural elements don't gel with the movie's psychological pretensions, or its eager, addle-headed urge to shock and perturb. Meanwhile, good actors like Virginia Madsen and Danny Huston don't know if they're coming or going in double roles that make little sense in any reality.
If the scenario is twisted enough to keep you guessing, it's probably best to know on the way in that you're not going to believe in any of it for a minute, or care about the characters. For all its gimmicky numerology, "The Number 23" just doesn't add up.
"The Number 23" is rated R and runs 95 minutes. For Entertainment Weekly's take, click here. New Line Cinema, which produced "The Number 23," is owned by CNN's parent company, Time Warner.