Friday, July 27, 2007

The Number 23

Director: Joel Schumacher
Starring: Jim Carrey, Virginia Madsen, Danny Huston, Logan Lerman, Rhona Mitra
Running Time: 108 min.
Rating: Unrated

**1/2 (out of ****)

Joel Schumacher is a director who possesses a talent not many filmmakers can claim to have, or would want. He has the ability to make even the most extraordinary story seem pedestrian. He's been doing this his entire career with the lone exception of 2003's Phone Booth, but that had a script so strong Ed Wood couldn't have botched it. His latest, The Number 23 starring Jim Carrey in a rare dramatic departure, unfortunately continues the curse of Schumacher.

This is really a tale of two movies. One of which is completely ridiculous while the other is somewhat engaging. Schumacher is helped however by a strong, risk taking performance by Carrey that peaks late in the third act and a script by Fernley Phillips that actually contains some interesting ideas. I'd go as far as to say the actual concept behind the story is one of the best in a while and the script for the most part delivers. This could have been a very good movie, maybe even a great one. It's too bad Schumacher wasn't interested in telling the story, or more accurately, he was too interested in telling it in a way that would damn it with ineffectiveness. As a result, minor story problems become major ones and a film with a lot of promise falls short.

Carrey plays Walter Sparrow a mild mannered dogcatcher who on his birthday receives an interesting, mysterious gift from his wife Agatha (Virginia Madsen). It's a book titled "The Number 23" written under the pseudonym of Topsy Kretts that she found at a used bookstore in the neighborhood. From the very first chapter Walter notices the book contains remarkable similarities to his own life. I should pause to say that these "remarkable similarities" aren't that remarkable at all and anyone could probably pick up any random book from the store and find similar coincidences if they looked for them. Amazingly though, and to the script's credit, this is actually acknowledged by his wife. The story itself tells of a detective named Fingerling (also played by Carrey) investigating the death of the "Suicide Blonde" whose obsession with the number 23 led her to take the life of herself and her boyfriend. Soon Fingerling himself becomes obsessed with unraveling the mystery of the number. Instead it leads him into a violent descent of madness and torment that strains his relationship with his lover Fabrizia (Madsen again).

Like his alter ego, Walter begins an investigation into the number and discovers certain names, addresses, time periods, and birth dates in his own life all add up to or involve the number 23 in some way. He's soon scribbling all over the walls and his body determined to solve the riddle, whatever it may be. Walter also discovers the book is tied to a real murder of a woman (Rhona Mitra) and is determined to find the author who he's convinced is responsible for it, even if it means involving his son (Logan Lerman) and destroying his marriage. The trailer would lead you to believe the actual number 23 figures significantly into the story but it doesn't. At least not how you think it does. It's really just a red herring. However, the book "The Number 23" is very important and the mystery behind that pays off big.

This is a film with a double structure, but unfortunately one structure is far superior to the other. When we're in real life with Walter attempting to unlock the mysteries of the book the movie is smart and gripping, but the detective story within the book is so bad that it's flat-out painful to watch. If you've always wanted to see Jim Carrey as a hard boiled, tormented, tattooed womanizing film noir detective then these scenes are for you. If you're like me and don't then these scenes play like bad outtakes and bloopers from Sin City. Imagine Schumacher directing a 1940's film noir but with the same sensibility he brought to Batman & Robin and you have a good idea how these scenes play out. I'd imagine this is one of those cases where everything plays much better on page than on screen because Schumacher shoots this in his typical self-masturbatory music video style with lightening speed cuts that completely distract from the story. That makes nearly the entire first half of the film unwatchable.

Carrey does the best he can as this detective but the fact he's terribly miscast in this type of role is inescapable. You know these scenes are bad when the fascinating thing I can find about them is that Virginia Madsen looks better with dark hair. Luckily for us the novel ends at chapter 22 and the rest of the movie deals with him trying to figure out who wrote it and why. There's also a psychiatrist (played in both stories by Danny Huston) who Walter/Fingerling suspects is having an affair with Agatha/Fabrizia. This character is pretty much useless but thankfully for Huston his supporting role here isn't embarrassing as his unfortunate one 2004's disturbing Birth. For me it was just a relief to see him in a movie where he's not publicly spanking reincarnated little boys.

The last half hour of this film with its big twist ending is kind of a cheat and silly, but I have to be honest and say it was entertaining as hell. Carrey may have been miscast in the role of noir detective but he excels as a tormented man wrestling with his own obsession and insanity as he completely owns the third act of the film. It helps that toward the end the movie finally explores the existential crisis of a man realizing a book may have been based on his life. I couldn't help but be reminded of Stranger Than Fiction as I watched even though that film was a dramatic comedy and this is a mystery/suspense thriller. Both do involve the main characters coming to the realization their lives are not what they think they are. I was surprised Phillips' script did at least attempt to explore some ideas and when I look back on it the plot does add up and make sense. This is a film that would probably play better on a second viewing, even if I regret to inform you that I will not be partaking in one anytime soon.

The Number 23
is somewhat similar to Premonition in tone and execution except the script here is competent and Carrey is a better dramatic actor than Bullock. Plus, unlike that mess, you can actually follow the plot. What really would have helped this film is if Schumacher stopped showing off and told the novel's story the same interesting way he told Walter's. After all, everyone can relate to a character who thinks they're the star of their own life story. Had that been filmed not as a joke, but with realism and feeling then the remaining pieces would have fallen into place to make this a success. I remember reading the synopsis of this film when it was in pre-production years ago and being excited and optimistic about the promising premise. Now I'm just left wondering what could have been.

No comments: