Style kicks the crap out of substance in director Joel Schumacher's glossy and persistently bizarre thriller, though it sure looks pretty doing it. It's a weird exercise in pure visual storytelling that poses as a narrative mindbender, all while Jim Carrey struggles mightily to keep his twitchy performance in check. Watching his humble family man unravel into madness is considerably more entertaining than seeing Carrey stifle his wilder impulses in a middlebrow mainstream comedy like Fun with Dick and Jane; though neither experience is entirely satisfying. Nobody works harder than Carrey here you see him sweat and strain in a genre far beyond his comfort zone, but even his failed efforts are more engaging than some "serious" actor's best stuff. His manic energy and quirky magnetism keeps Number 23 watchable long after the script's freaky brew of numerology, paranoia and pop psychology grows irritating.
The flimsy plot concerns Carrey's geek-chic dog catcher, er, "animal control officer" Walter Sparrow, who gets a worn copy of a rare mystery novel from his comely, symbolically named wife Agatha (Virginia Madsen). Apparently self-published by one "Topsy Kretts," the book is filled with curiously personal details about Walter, as well as a web of ominous talk about the eerie coincidences of the "23 enigma" such as: Julius Caesar was stabbed 23 times and Kurt Cobain died in 1994, so 1+9+9+4=23. Wow, trippy.
Walter spends the rest of the movie manically adding numbers, like some Sesame Street psycho even resembling a spastic muppet with floppy strands of black hair falling over his bugged-out eyes. He also falls into fantasies made of lurid pulp fiction tropes, in which he is a brooding, saxophone-toting stud private eye with a taste for femme fatales. These two altered realities inevitably bleed into each other, and by the time the real world blood starts flying, it's hard to imagine a world where it'd be credible. Aside from the numerical nonsense, the movie works furiously at setting a creepy mood; the muddled storyline contrasts sharply the clarity of the assured visuals. Everything, from the stark lighting and digital manipulation to the lush set design, makes for impressive eye candy. The story borrows a page or three from movies like Secret Window or The Shining, and if Carrey doesn't quite match Depp or Nicholson, it's fun to watch him try.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].