You may be more forgiving if Joel Schumacher’s The Number 23 was only the 23rd variation of this (now) ridiculous sub-genre of twisty psychological thrillers you’ve seen; me, I’ve unwittingly taken in this same film no less than 46 times.
Basic plot dates back to at least Jagged Edge (1985), the genre given new life and a supernatural spin with The Sixth Sense (1999), before being so successfully lampooned by Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation (2002), and now five years later and twenty out of date I’ve seen two of these in a matter of weeks (previously: Perfect Stranger). Enough!
Each variation presents some kind of interesting premise, which is either a) used as a red herring, or b) left ignored and unexplored, as the recklessly weighty plot inevitably takes over and leaves little room for anything else.
And yes, the premise of The Number 23 is an interesting one: numerology, specifically eerie coincidences surrounding the actual number 23 and various protracted equations that add up to it. Jim Carrey (OK but miscast) stars as animal control officer Walter Sparrow, who is given a mysterious book entitled The Number 23 by wife Agatha (an underused Virginia Madsen).
“You can call me Fingerling”, not exactly an opening on the level of “Call me Ishmael”, but nevertheless: Walter becomes drawn in by the book, drawing parallels between his life and the narrator’s, eventually becoming as obsessed with numbers and ’23’ as Fingerling.
And yes, a lot of things do seem to add up to 23 (Titanic sinking = 4/15/1912 = 4+1+5+1+9+1+2 = 23; September 11 = 9/11/2001 = 9+11+2+0+0+1 = 23), as long as you try hard enough and don’t follow any clear set of rules, but what does it all mean? Will Walter die in 23 days? Will the audience sit through 23 minutes of this?
After an hour of mindless mathematics that add up to zero, Plot kicks in, ignores most of what went on previously, and drives this thing home in expected fashion.
But here’s the kicker: most films of the type have a bit of grace, allowing for your “unexpected” twist to gently fall over the audience with a few visual clues and a casual revelation; here, director Schumacher generously treats us to 15 minutes of backstory and exposition after the twist has occurred, walking us idiots through what we already knew what was going to happen minutes into the film.
And it still doesn’t make any sense. 3/2 = 1.5 stars.