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23′ chills audiences despite acting, writing flaws

Brian Doxtader | Monday, March 5, 2007

Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes. The earth is tilted at a 23-degree angle. Psalm 23 is the best-known Psalm. In Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” Caesar was stabbed 23 times. Michael Jordan wore the number 23, and Dr. Pepper has 23 flavors.

It’s clear that there is something strange about the number 23. Joel Schumacher’s “The Number 23” highlights much of the folklore surrounding 23 in an exciting, fast-paced mystery-thriller.

Walter Sparrow (Jim Carrey) is a mild-mannered dogcatcher who leads a happy life with his wife Agatha (Virginia Madsen) and son Robin (Logan Lerman). While chasing a particularly vicious dog one day, Agatha stumbles into a used booksellers and discovers a red book entitled “The Number 23.” Written by Topsy Kretts, Agatha becomes intrigued and passes the book along to her husband. Entranced by the novel’s narrative, Sparrow becomes obsessed and begins seeing the number 23 appear in world events and his own personal life.

The script, written by first-time scribe Fernley Phillips, is alternately clever and idiotic. Why he felt the need to give everyone ridiculous names is almost unfathomable – the wife’s name is Agatha (Sparrow, not Christie, though the reference is obvious), the son’s name is Robin Sparrow, the professor’s name is Isaac French and the book author’s name is Topsy Kretts (get it?). We spent a good portion of the film giggling over the fact that Sparrow couldn’t figure out what “Topsy Kretts” really meant and the rest of it aghast that he would actually name his son Robin Sparrow.

In actuality, though, “The Number 23” isn’t nearly as bad as everyone says. Instead, despite its inherent goofiness, the film is a lot of fun to watch and is surprisingly intriguing. The number 23 does have a lot of significance in numerology, and some of the coincidences pointed out in the film are interesting (9/11/2001, 9 + 11 + 2 + 1 = 23, for instance), but the film often stretches to make it all work.

Still, “The Number 23” clips along at a nice pace until its bizarre resolution. The scenes that occur within the narrative of the novel “The Number 23” are stylish and well-directed. On the whole, however, “The Number 23” is closer to “Phone Booth” than it is to “Batman and Robin” and that’s a very good thing – Schumacher keeps his excesses in check, especially in the scenes set in reality.

It’s obvious that Jim Carrey is trying to stretch out his acting muscles into more dramatic roles, an extension of his well-received turn in 2004’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” which co-starred Kate Winslet. He does himself a bit of a disservice here because his performance really isn’t all that good. Virginia Madsen, however, manages to reel him in a bit with a steady, straight-faced performance as Agatha, but doesn’t offer the character to act off of that Winslet did. None of the other characters have much to do, though Danny Huston is quickly establishing himself as a capable character actor in the vein of John C. Reilly.

Although “The Number 23” is advertised as a scary movie, it functions far better as an unraveling mystery movie, closer in vein to Christopher Nolan’s “Memento.” It certainly falls to a distant second when compared to the far superior “Memento,” but even with its numerous faults, “The Number 23” is still an enjoyable ride that brings both laughs and chills to the audience – it wanted to bring the chills but not the laughs.