The only fright in the nominal thriller "The Number 23" is how shaggy, gaunt, and wiped out Jim Carrey looks. Standing around in too many scenes wearing a white tank top, with tattoos on his back and a saxophone in his hands, he could be auditioning for a film about Iggy Pop's unknown jazz years.
Carrey plays Walter Sparrow, a dogcatcher who suffers from "graphomania" and numerological compulsion. This means he spends the whole movie keyed up over the number 23, scribbling equations and formulas everywhere, including on his own body and his own home. Alas, the writing is quite literally on the wall, and it's complete gibberish.
Walter narrates the events that transpire after his all-too-patient wife, a baker named Agatha (Virginia Madsen), introduces him to the James M. Cain-lite "novel of obsession" that shares its title with the movie. The pedestrian, vaguely queasy prose ("You can call me Fingerling") obsesses both the dogcatcher and director Joel Schumacher, who gives us gauzy reenactments of the book's pulpy, noirish doings.
They feature Walter as the detective, Fingerling, investigating murder and more, and Agatha in a black wig playing a whorish Italian named Fabrizia. Whorishness being this book's stock in trade, there's another sexpot (Lynn Collins). She exposes the detective (I can't type that name again) to her own paranoia over the number 23.
She's called Suicide Blonde, like the old hit INXS song, only you can't dance to her. Indeed, the names in this film seem to be a parody of symbolism. A case in point: Walter's teen son is called Robin Sparrow.
For Walter, the book's numeric paranoia is contagious, and he can't stop 23-ing. The movie follows crazily along, delivering psychopathology reminiscent of "The Shining," montages straight out of recent bargain-basement horror, not to mention a random shot of "Dogs Playing Poker." (If you're truly interested in the cinema of numeric affliction and writing on the body, skip this movie and try the films of Peter Greenaway.)
It's depressing to see Carrey go in so deeply for this sort of claptrap the way he does in the preposterous climax, which is like an unwelcome riff on sequences from "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." Incidentally, "23" does inspire longing for the memory-purging services in that movie.
First-time screenwriter Fernley Phillips is the mind behind this thriller. And his script seems to have sprung from the same writer's workshop that gave us last year's "Stranger Than Fiction," which also featured a paranoid sap, the lady baker in his life, a work of dubious literature, some unconvincing analysis of said literature, the bogus use of a musical instrument as a prop, an anonymous urban setting, and several aggravating ideas about destiny as culminating in the rush on an oncoming city bus.
"The Number 23" is the sleazier movie. But the lurid is all that really seems to interest Schumacher anymore. He's never been much of a filmmaker, and "23" has no real rhythm or suspense. Like a bad music video (which is to say like most of Schumacher's movies), the whole thing is production design and runaway editing. Yet his prolific career has lasted three decades.
Focused on a sort of pop youth movie, he gave us his best stuff in the 1980s and very early '90s ("St. Elmo's Fire," "The Lost Boys," "Flatliners") but never outgrew the slickness of that era, refusing to put his style to any penetrating use. So nearly everything he touched -- "Batman Forever," "Batman & Robin," "8MM," "Flawless," "Bad Company," "Phone Booth," "The Phantom of the Opera" -- turned to schlock.
Schlock can be fun, just not here. "23" is like spending more than 90 minutes watching somebody else complete a Sudoku puzzle. I know what you're thinking: No Sudoku puzzle should take more than 90 minutes!