'The Number 23' – a whodunit, but who cares?

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

Just in case one dreadful movie this week – "The Astronaut Farmer" – isn't enough for you, here's another. Thematically, "The Number 23" actually parallels that other film: Both are about an obsessed husband and family man and, eerily, both costar Virginia Madsen, who really should tell her agent she no longer will be accepting any more "clueless wife" roles.

Tonally, however, "The Number 23" couldn't be further removed from "The Astronaut Farmer," which at least was entertainingly awful. By contrast, "The Number 23" is bleak and brackish. It makes you want to cover your eyes and clutch your ears. How's that for a quote line?

Jim Carrey plays Walter Sparrow, a dogcatcher who seems unbalanced from the start, although we are supposed to be charting his gradual descent into madness. As a birthday present, his wife, Agatha, (as in Christie?) presents him with a murder mystery, "The Number 23," that she picked up in a secondhand book store. Walter is immediately taken with the similarities between this mysterious tome, which features a "noirish" detective named Fingerling and a femme fatale named Fabrizia, and events in his own life.

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In particular, he is overtaken by Fingerling's obsession with the number 23. He sees the number, or its permutations, everywhere and is terrified that, like Fingerling, he will commit murder. In nightmarish reenactments, Carrey plays Fingerling in the film, and Madsen is Fabrizia. It's not exactly a blessing to play two stupid-silly roles.

Why would Carrey allow himself to be in such a movie? He's been trying to stretch himself for years, and at least once, in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," he managed to successfully convert his patented comic hysteria into dramatic hysteria.

But in "The Number 23," he might as well be making scary faces in front of a mirror. It's not his fault exactly. Director Joel Schumacher is in his dried-blood mode here. (Remember "8MM"?) There's almost no way for an actor to drill through the grunge.

If we are going to watch a movie about a man trying to unlock the secrets of his past, it would helpful if we had some idea of his present. Walter is such a tortured riddle that he never remotely elicits sympathy from us. In fact, the only entity I felt sorry for in "The Number 23" was Ned, a big white mutt that Walter has it in for. When he tries to run Ned down in his van, I was much more concerned about Ned's safety than Walter's sanity.

The press kit for this movie provides a helpful list of enigmas surrounding the number 23, including the fact that – very scary – "The Number 23" opens in theaters Friday.

Here's a prediction: "The Number 23" will score 23 on metacritic.com. Grade: F

Rated R for violence, disturbing images, sexuality, and language.

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