A film review by Craig J. Koban



2007, R, 95 mins.

Walter Sparrow/Fingerling: Jim Carrey / Agatha Sparrow/Fabrizia: Virginia Madsen / Robin Sparrow: Logan Lerman / Isaac French/Dr. Miles Phoenix: Danny Huston / Laura Tollins: Rhona Mitra / Dr. Alice Mortimer: Patricia Belcher / Sybil: Michelle Arthur / Kyle Finch: Mark Pellegrino

Directed by Joel Schumacher /  Written by Fernley Phillips

Hmmmm…is there some spooky and mystical significance to the number 23? 


Consider the following:

1. Julius Caesar was stabbed 23 times by Roman senators.

2. The Titanic sand on April 15, 1912.  4/15/1912: 4+1+5+1+9+1+2=23

3. Every person has 46 chromosomes, 23 from each parent.

4. The tilt of the Earth's axis is 23 degrees.

5. The Mayans believed the Earth would end on December 12, 2012: 20+1+2 = 23.

6. Joel Schumacher’s THE NUMBER 23 is his 23rd project as a director

7. THE NUMBER 23 opened on February 23, 2007.

8. I checked my watch 23 times while watching this film…just kidding.

Geez…maybe there is something to this phenomenon?  Perhaps I should consider things in my own life.

My birthday is February 8, 1975: 2/8/1975 – 2+8+1+9+7+5 = 32.  Whoops…nothing there.   My favourite film of all-time is STAR WARS.  It came out in May of 1977: 05/1977: 5+1+9+7+7 + 29.  Dang…nothing there either.  My apartment number is 9 at building number 2901: 9+2+9+0+1 = 21.  For crying out loud….

Okay, maybe there is absolutely no significance to the number beyond what some crazy and fanatical lunatics give it.  Those who follow the so-called "23 ENIGMA" are people that buy into a belief that all incidents and events are directly connected to the number, some permutation of the number, or a number related to the number 23, given enough inventiveness on the part of the interpreter.  Perhaps belief in such nonsense is a sign of Apophenia (the experience of seeing patterns or connections in random or meaningless data). 

I strongly adhere the later.

Schumacher’s THE NUMBER 23 is a would-be intoxicating thriller and murder mystery that attempts to tap into the powerful and gripping allure of the 23 Enigma.  It uses one character's obsessive impulses with occult like numerology to get the better of his psyche and drive him literally mad.  Yet, I grew dizzy throughout the film wondering why anyone just did not sit down with this mad loon, do a bit of research on this enigma on-line and point out the gapping holes in the whole phenomenon.

Well, I did.  Consider this:

q       The number 23  is a fairly low number, which makes it easier to establish comparisons and or relationships to things.

q       The 23 ENIGMA strongly follows the "self-fulfilling prophesy", which dictates that the real value that one places in the importance of the number is greatly predicated on the mind’s own power to perceive “truth” in nearly anything.  In other words, if you look hard enough, you could find the number in just about anything.

q       If there was a number to easily associate with things, then 23 takes top honours.  Why?  Maybe because it’s a prime number and has the notoriety of having the two lowest primes as digits: 2 and 3 are small and can easily be included in the most complex of calculations.  Two and three are also the most frequent factors (excluding 1) of a given range of whole numbers.

Thank-you, Wikipedia!

Is the term 'dumb' perhaps a bit too harsh for THE NUMBER 23?  It's preoccupation with using the occult of the digits to asinine levels for scares and thrills is kind of silly and foolhardy, yes, but the film is well directed and thanklessly acted.  On many levels, I guess it is not too terribly difficult to see how one nut job could become so transfixed by the number that they could be driven to madness.  In the hands of Jim Carrey - who has been very good in admirable dramatic films (he is often forgotten for his string work in films like THE TRUMAN SHOW, MAN ON THE MOON, ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND and the terrible undervalued THE MAJESTIC) - and in THE NUMBER 23 he forges a character that is plausibly wonky and deranged.  He creates a sort of inspired lunacy and rapid fire urgency to his role.  On a performance and directorial level, THE NUMBER 23 is competently handled.

The real problem is the fact that the script is as inane as the 23 ENIGMA itself.  The film has an intriguing premise by using the numerology of 23 as a launching pad to show the escalating fall into madness by its main character, but it has very little – if any – satisfying follow-through on that premise.  Like most modern thrillers, this one has to have the now obligatory twist ending (curse you, M.Night Shyamalan!) and in this film’s case it ultimately lead me to scratch my head, roll my eyes, and pitifully utter, “Huh?”  Without given too much away, the radical shift in the film’s narrative and the manner with which it explains all of the actions by most of the major characters is about as satisfying of a explanation to the events as if someone said, "It was all just a dream."  The film concludes on such a telegraphed and half-baked note that even rabid conspiracy theorist could not take it too  seriously.

Jim Carrey plays Walter Sparrow, an animal control specialist, which probably marks the only time in cinematic history that an actor has twice played a character with such a strong affinity to animals (Ace Ventura, anyone?).  He leads a life of normalcy.  He has a beautiful wife, Agatha (Virginian Madsen, who seems stuck in playing battered wife characters now), and a caring son named Robin (Logan Lerman).  One day his life changes completely when his wife purchases a copy of an obscure book called “The Number 23.”  It’s so obscure that the author’s name does not come up on any search engines.  Hmmmmm.... 

The book itself is about obsession and darkness and concerns a main character that is a detective named Fingerling, who lets his pathological attachment to the 23 Enigma get the better of him.  As Walter slowly begins to read the book he begins to discover something quite startling: details in the narrative have a very strong correlation to his own life.  Actually, many of the details seem ripped from his life altogether.  Yet, how is this possible?  Did the author know Walter?  Was the author's life identical to Walter’s?  Or, is their some sort of eerie relationship between both of their lives and the number 23?

At this point, it should be noted that numerology - or at least a fascination with all things connected to the number 23 - plays a central part in the plot.  The more Walter buries himself in the minutia of the book the more he sees parallels between himself and Fingerling.  The film is told with two parallel stories intertwined between each other.  We see Walter’s tale unfold and alongside that we also see Fingerling’s (also played by Carrey) unfold.  Soon, Walter becomes a real extremist and this really begins to spook his wife in a really bad way.  Agatha thinks that maybe he needs help and a psychologist friend (Danny Huston) seems to be the only sane voice of reason in the film by suggesting that – dag-nammit – Walter is seeing importance in the number 23 because he convinces himself in the importance of the number.  This does little to sway Walter.  Maybe Huston could have convinced him more if he allowed a buddy from the Mathematical department to drill Walter on the nature of prime numbers, but I digress. 

Walter continues to ignore all of his wife’s concerns and the worries of his sensible friends.  Within no time his numerology fixation starts to embrace him so fully that he begins to fanaticize and dream of murdering people, his own wife included.  Soon, the story unfolds in a grizzly manner and Walter learns a dark and sinister truth that allows him to comes to grips with the mystery of the novel once and for all.

Again, it is not the performances and sense of aesthetic style that impede on the effectiveness of        THE NUMBER 23 (Carrey is, as already mentioned, effective in his dual role, and Schumacher creates some chilling visuals), but it is the narrative as a whole that hurts the film.  The number 23 itself ultimately becomes a silly gimmick by which the film loosely hinges itself on to tell a story and then, in the final 30 minutes, offers up an explanation that is even more groan-inducing than those that believe in the sheer absurdity of the 23 Enigma.  The twist is pure hogwash that is difficult to swallow.  It’s made even less palpable by the fact that it is explained to the viewers in an endless third act expositional voice over that seems to go on forever. 

Instead of revealing the twist quickly and therefore jolting the viewer - and allowing us to pick up the pieces and put them together - THE NUMBER 23 feels the need to go on and on and on to explain every detail.  Not only that, but the twist involves a Herculean jump in logic.  Again, I don’t want to give anything away, but the explanation behind the origins of the book contradicts certain details already established in the film.  The manner with which a physiological and cognitive disorder is utilized so conveniently in the film is kind of shallow-minded.  There is a certain school of film criticism thought that suggests that one has to simply go with the flow of films like this and ignore their holes.  I would agree to that in principle, but the story holes here are so large that they so sharply contradict one another, so much so that it essentially sinks the relative worth of the film.  That’s a shame. 

Joel Schumacher is a director that has made some consistently decent films over the last few years, like TIGERLAND, PHONE BOOTH, VERONICA GUERIN, and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.  However, THE NUMBER 23 is unfortunately overshadowed by such befuddling plot developments that overwhelm any semblance of narrative solidarity and cohesion.  It uses one man’s fixation on the number 23 and all of its jigsaw-like correlations with everyday things consume him (that’s a great set up).  Jim Carrey’s performance is suitably sinister and creepy, Schumacher’s strong visual flourishes are inspired, but the film is utterly lost in its ham-infested reliance on mind-numbingly moronic plot developments.  Scary and dark occult thrillers should not be as intellectually vacant as THE NUMBER 23. 

Oh…and for all of you out that that stridently support the 23 Enigma - and if you read and circled every 23rd word in this review - you would find that they all add up to repeat the same phrase: THE NUMBER 23 is ridiculous. 

Wait a minute…there are 23 characters in that last sentence….hmmmm.

  H O M E