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The Number 23

July 31, 2007

SPOILER WARNING: there are spoilers ahead. Heck, I’m about to give the ending away, so if you’re planning on seeing The Number 23 I’d give this review a miss.

Beginning No.1

You know what to expect when a so-called comedian decides to turn his hand to something serious. Look at Brian Conley in Circus, for instance. Or Eddie Izzard in, er, Circus. Or Christopher Biggins in, well, Circus. Hmmm. Bad choice. But the end result is usually the same.

Beginning No.2

Q: How can you tell if an elephant’s been in the fridge?
A: Footsteps in the custard.O-o-o-o-o-h dear.

Right, I’ll start properly, but I’m just prolonging the inevitable here. You see, The Number 23 is a Joel Schumacher movie…[pause for effect]…and I should just stop there, but against my better judgement I went and saw this, so I suppose I ought to carry on. Joel has made some pretty big, dumb movies in his career (Flatliners, Dying Young – ooof! – Batman & Robin), but I guess he’s also done Falling Down and Veronica Guerin, so hey…and I decided to give the guy a break. This might be ‘OK’ Joel, rather than ‘Bad’ Joel, you know? The Number 23 also marks Jim Carrey’s step up into ‘serious’ (read ‘straight’, and ‘not playing for laughs’) actorly pursuits. He plays a municipal dog-catcher (the implausibly-named Walter Sparrow), married to glamorous Virginia Madsen and, as befits all blue-collar workers in movies set in Small Town America these days, lives an idyllic life in a house way bigger than you could possibly imagine he’d ever be able to afford. Still, they seem a happy couple. They have a snappy, witty, joke-a-minute relationship (so Carrey not quite playing it straight, as I’m sure you probably guessed), a delightful mop-headed non-brat teen son, a borderline boho lifestyle, and no lack of dreamy sunlight drifting through the windows.

This, and I’m assuming you’re ahead of me already, is all about to come crashing down around them. Given a book – The Number 23 by Toppsy Kretts (top secrets, geddit?) – by his wife for his birthday (on, gasp, 3rd Feb, geddit again?) Walter is shaken to his core to discover creepy and gruesome parallels with the life of the narrator and his own. Bizarre coincide-

[scratch]

-whoa! just stop there a sec. Time out.

At this point, 15 minutes or so in, I actually found myself enjoying much of what I was seeing. There are some very neat little visual conceits and tricks, a few terrific washed-out noir-y treats and a delightful wee mish-mash of images where Carrey doesn’t actually look like Carrey at all and seems to be carrying off the fantasy role of the book’s nasty, scarred, seen-it-all übercop Fingerling. I was, goodness me, impressed. As another scene topped the previous, then another, then another I was beginning to think we might have something here…and then…and then we get ‘a clue’. A great fat clod-hopping footstep in the custard clue. Actually we get a few: the several-times-encountered gravestone of an otherwise-apparently-irrelevant character generating several eye-rolling moments (can’t imagine that won’t have some significance), being a particular favourite. It’s almost as if some film-makers think their audience has never seen one of these twisty-turny thrillers before, like, at all. Do they just imagine we’ll not see these things coming?

Walter, you see, is struck by the

[scratch…back on the record]

-bizarre coincidences thrown up by the odd theory of the 23 Enigma, a genuine – if nuts – belief that the Universe revolves around, well, the number 23, which happens to be a central theme of the book his wife has given him. So, he takes, for instance, A as 1, B as 2…Y as 25, Z as 26, and makes up tedious connections up with people’s names. Obviously this is pure apophenia (a good title for a thriller if ever there was one) but Carrey runs with it and it turns his life upside down. He becomes obsessed with the idea and, as is the wont of obsessed people in Hollywood movies, starts to write his ridiculous theories haphazardly all over the walls, whilst simultaneously never putting anything away. And he stops shaving, too. Oh, and he goes manic. I think you get it. Anyway, the clue is that he says, as an aside – a ploy which always lights a little pilot light in the back of my mind, as a mini-reference for later – that “it doesn’t work with my name, but” and then proceeds to draw any number of conclusions from other words, other names, things, dates, etc. OK, OK, Walter, but your name begins and ends in ‘w’, which of course is ’23’. And all of a sudden, I’m in Identity territory, and quite frankly I didn’t believe a bloody thing the man said after that. Numerology is the daftest of all pseudo-beliefs, allowing for as much interpretation as the deluded wish to put into it, and then no more once the conclusions fits, but a 23 at the start and the end of his name? Come on.

Still, on it ran. And gradually he begins to trust people less and less, one of them being his wife whom, he believes, is somehow involved with their friend and shrink, Isaac. I realised, as an increasingly dishevelled and psychotic Carrey makes connection after connection, that he was going to come a cropper. It’s obvious that wifey and shrink are in cahoots over something and that something gets clearer and clearer the longer it takes for 5th-billed star and Brit actress Rhona Mitra (Ali G in da House, The Life of David Gale) to appear. Now, I quite like Rhona, she’s a pretty girl and not easily forgotten, and I know what she looks like. Plus, I know when someone hasn’t appeared yet, and after an hour and ten minutes, with one story thread seemingly drawing to a close, and no appearance, it was obvious to me that A Very Big Explanation was about to happen. This could only mean one thing:

There was going to be a twist.

Yeah. One of them. Now, when you know a twist is coming, you look around for it, and sure enough, demented Jim – who wouldn’t be able to convince a meths-drinking tramp with the necessary conviction that he was the sane one and his crazed ideas were valid – runs slap bang into it. And boy, it’s a doozy. It’s a twenty 23 carat pile of pants twist, with a brown nugget on top. Cue a way-too-long backstory involving the dead gravestone girl who happens to be Rhona Mitra, surprise surprise; a gobsmackingly serious deus ex machina medical history; a series of coincidences that have nothing to do with the friggin’ number 23 in the slightest; and a head-in-hands sickly sweet The Right Thing To Do ending that’ll have barf sticking to popcorn the length and breadth of the country.

If anyone has seen Alan Parker’s masterly gothic thriller Angel Heart (“I know who I am!”) then they know the ending to this. If you’ve read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, then you know the ending to this. If you’ve seen bloody Identity, you know the ending to this. If you’ve two brain cells to rub together, you know the ending to this. As Louis Cyphre says in Parker’s great, great movie, “Alas, how terrible is wisdom when it brings no profit to the wise”, and had Shumacher shown any wisdom at all, he’d have watched that half a dozen times and decided to leave the central idea SPOILER: of the narrator being the perpetrator well alone. Ooops, that’s torn it, but hell, it’s already brilliantly covered by that earlier movie, and this is just an almighty sham and a shame.

Save your £8 and buy Angel Heart instead.

(the star for the few neat touches near the start)

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