It almost seems as if The Number 23 thinks it’s too smart for its audience, and that you’ll get lost along the way. That wasn’t the case for me, which made the 10-minute flashback at the end explaining the entire film feel redundant and antagonistic. It was like the film was looking down on me, telling me that I was stupid for not figuring out the plot well in advance. Well let me tell you something, film: I figured it out way earlier than you probably wanted me to.
That’s the worst part about it though, and if it actually does lose some people, as it possibly will, then explaining it will make everyone feel good afterward, as they’ll get the conclusion that they wish for. Since this isn’t a great film we’re dealing with, getting the satisfaction of knowing everything that happened is something that is an absolute must. You’ll probably not want to watch it a second time, so if there are any unsolved mysteries for you after a first viewing, then you’ll probably have an even worse opinion of it. Thankfully, this isn’t an issue.
The plot revolves around a book that Walter Sparrow (Jim Carrey) ends up reading. His wife, Agatha (Virginia Madsen) buys it for him on his birthday, and he becomes obsessed with it, and its content. It details the story of a man who becomes fixated on the number 23. He sees it everywhere, and ends up going somewhat insane thanks to it. Sparrow, while reading the book, notes that its story is similar to his life, while his wife is quick to say that it isn’t. He also becomes transfixed with the number 23, and it leads him in the direction of a murder — a murder where the body still hasn’t been found.
While reading the story, Carrey plays a dual role as “Fingerling”, the main character. In this dark, highly contrasted world, he has tattoos on his arms and back, and everything is highly stylized. The real world Sparrow is an animal control officer, and the world is light and quite beautiful. But as he progresses through the book, the two worlds blend into one, at least, aesthetically, and the only way to tell our characters apart are the aforementioned tattoos.
When Sparrow is reading the book, the film was very interesting. Seeing how the two worlds could be connected, witnessing Sparrow’s mental decline as the number 23 begins infecting his life — all of that was fun to watch. But when the book ends, and the murder mystery begins, I was less engaged. It was still entertaining, but the film degenerates into a standard whodunit that isn’t all that difficult to figure out.
The plot seems to be overly convoluted just for the sake of being overly convoluted though. There are a lot of red herrings, seemingly pointless scenes that end up coming back to be important, as well as some things that don’t quite add up, thanks to the plot trying to hard to confuse the audience. And then there are some unexplained events that took place that actually were pointless, and only used to pad the runtime. But they gave us questions that we want answered, but never are. And why is there a dog that follows Sparrow around? The plot’s just kind of a mess.
Jim Carrey is a good actor when he’s not doing goofy comedies. He’s shown this previously in films like The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and proves it again here. When he isn’t the “aww shucks” guy that you just want to punch in the face, he can show a darker side, one that always makes us question if there isn’t a darker secret that we don’t know about. Is he hiding something, and what? It’s this kind of quality that was required for a film like this, and Carrey is a suitable actor in this role.
Now, the “23 Enigma”, as it is called, is a real thing that conspiracy theorists, postmodernists and the like can become very obsessed with. Or so I’ve heard. However, if you happen to be obsessed with this number, or any number, The Number 23 won’t cure you or make you feel anything. See, the number isn’t really important, but is simply a plot device to get us to the murder mystery part of the story, and the ending doesn’t involve the number at all. If functions like a MacGuffin, except it is not an object, but instead, simply a number. It easily could have been a word, letter or a different number, but writer Fernley Phillips and director Joel Schumacher decided to use the 23 Enigma in hopes of getting some more money out of the audience.
The Number 23 certainly isn’t a great film, but it works in keep your attention. Whether it’s just so that you can find out what’s going on the entire time or because seeing Jim Carrey in a role that isn’t in a goofy comedy film is such a rare opportunity that you must relish it, you’ll still likely be entertained. But after the storybook portion of the film, it loses a lot of its interest because it turns into a generic murder mystery. But you’ll be involved by this point and want to see it through to the end. I’ve got to give it a slight recommendation just for this, even if you’ll be unlikely to want to watch it more than once.