The Number 23 tries hard. It wants to be sober and ooky: check the skritchy Seven-derived opening credits sequence, listing instances of “23” in history and science (numbers of chromosomes, birth and death dates, catastrophes). Already, the movie’s straining. But for all the silliness that follows — a twisty-turny nightmarey plot, deep-saturated colors, speeding-slowing camera tricks — the most odious indication of trying too hardness might be Jim Carrey’s hair. It’s long and dark and stringy. Uh-oh. He’s in serious mode.
The so-haired character, Walter Sparrow, is a dogcatcher, first appearing while sitting in his truck, daylight strangely grim and gray. As he considers, in voiceover, “when it started,” the frame appears to rewind and he’s in his home on some recent 23 December, Elvis’ “Blue Christmas” low on the soundtrack (“I’ll be so blue thinking about you”). He’s got a teenaged son, Robin (Logan Lerman) and a cool wife, Aggie (Virginia Madsen), who makes cakes for a living. Walter seems to think that he made some decision at this point that he might have made differently, and that would have changed the movie. Would that he had.
From here Walter’s life will unravel. But oh yes, first he has to meet an American bulldog named Ned, a named Walter interprets as “Nasty Evil Dog.” Called to capture Ned, Walter starts telling it a story, “Once upon a time, there was a dog,” Walter begins, “He lived a life of terror… his teeth were sharp and his belly full, but his heart was empty.” Ned’s as put off by this pretense at dog-psych as you are, and so promptly bites Walter and escapes. Now, Walter must visit with a counselor (Patricia Belcher), to make sure he’s not traumatized or unable to keep to his work schedule. “You’re not a danger to anyone,” she pronounces, and sends him home to recuperate from the bite.
But Walter will be a “danger,” in another incarnation, inspired by his reading of a novel called The Number 23. His imagining of the action puts him inside as a surly detective, Fingerling, possessed of a worked-out, heavily inked body. He’s got a sultry dame named, so exotically, Fabrizia (Madsen in dark wig), with whom he indulges in kinkyish sex (she’s fond of crime scenes, sex and death together providing a great “turn-on”). One such scene is occasioned by the icy hot Suicide Blonde (Lynn Collins), who raises the issue of that number. She sees it everywhere, she’s written it all over her walls, and she leaps from her balcony to escape it. “This fucking number 23,” she asserts, “It rules my life.”
Her intensity, her fear, her too-white dress and room and lighting, her violent death: it’s all a little much. Looking at her scribbled-on walls, Fingerling admits in voiceover, “I’ll be honest, I didn’t get it.”
And with that laughable line, the number ostensibly becomes Fingerling/Walter’s obsession. Walter emerges from reading this particular chapter convinced that the number is meaningful. Not only that, but, no matter his state of “getting,” the number is out to get him. This part is hazy. The number appears willfully to inflict psychic torment, as it does on the Suicide Blonde, who notes before her demise that the color pink is somehow involved as well (its letters translated to numbers lead to a sum of 23). But it’s not random. As Walter digs deeper, he brings young Robin into the mix, as he’s also inclined to count and mutter and assert “ah-has!” upon discovering a new finagling of the number. They find 23s everywhere, in street signs, in zip codes, in dates. They’re aghast and giddy at the possibilities. Walter is further convinced of his rightness when he meets with Aggie’s professor friend, Isaac French (Danny Huston). Why yes, he agrees, the number is renowned: “It’s very good at this particular game.”
Okay, so the movie is at least nominally aware of the silliness of its device, that the finding of 23s in every frame is a game, that the meanings are more about readers’ needs than some grand plan of the universe. But awareness is not enough. The boys persist in their quest to understand, convincing themselves of significance, scaring themselves into dark corner and inscrutable puzzles, just waiting to be cracked by their application of ingenuity. There’s more violence involved, indeed, the hoary specter of the dead college coed (Rhona Mitra) soon materializes. How she matters and why Ned repeatedly visits her gravestone are keys to the mystery. Problem is, at this point, you don’t much care whether anyone figures this out.
As the number tends to produce dead girls, the story adopts something of a norish bent. The Fingerling sequences offer plenty of iconography: long shafts of light, sharp-edged shadows, bloody knives, women in black lingerie. Fabrizia is especially well-equipped for the fatale gyrations, standing in doorways with her hip cocked and her eyes narrowed. When, following some disconnected plotty event, Fingerling comes home having lost his job, she’s completely pissed off. “You’re not a detective anymore?” she asks. “You don’t have a gun?”
This would be the fantasy of the dogcatcher — and the college professor and the teenaged boy — that having the gun is crucial to a man’s identity, in the eyes of his hot chick, anyway. Her subsequent dismissal — “Maybe you should just get some sleep tonight” — is probably cruel. At least it leaves Fingerling looking bereft: she only wants me for my gun? And with that self-fulfilling, utterly pedestrian revelation, Walter is undone.
“All this is gonna come to an end,” declares Aggie. Just not soon enough. First, Walter’s self-perception must be revealed as both powerful and fragile, motivating the movie’s aesthetic paroxysms and yet just waiting to collapse into confessions of guilt and pain and really horrendous violence. Walter isn’t precisely a victim here, inside his own “life of terror,” but he looks like one, eyes red and teary. And looking is key: unlike bad sex fiend Fabrizia, good, blond, sugary cakemaker Aggie stands by her pathetic, angry, self-making man. She believes in his gun, even he doesn’t have one.