THE NUMBER 23 directed by Joel Schumacher, written by Fernley Phillips, with Jim Carrey, Virginia Madsen, Logan Lerman and Danny Huston. 95 minutes. An Alliance Atlantis release. Opens Friday (February 23). For venues and times, see Movies, page 84. Rating: NN Rating: NN
This is a curiously tame thriller for a film built on the gaudy pulp-fiction premises of a book that can destroy its reader and the pseudo-mystical mathematical oddities that cluster around the number 23.
Jim Carrey is the dog catcher and devoted family man who stumbles across an obscure novel that seems to be telling his life story and sending him to his doom by infecting him with an obsession with the titular number.
Carrey's made a specialty of disturbed people, and he's good at it. Check out Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Me, Myself & Irene and The Cable Guy. Darkness slides easily onto his sunny features.
That sunny side is used well here. Carrey has lots of chemistry with Logan Lerman as his son and Virginia Madsen (Sideways), excellent as always, in the thankless role of the wife.
But Carrey and Madsen seem to be having a lot more fun in the scenes from the novel-of-doom, where he's a sleuth and she's a femme fatale. They're both slightly over-the-top in a way that gives life to those scenes' overheated atmosphere. Sadly, Carrey never gets his darkness into high gear in the rest of the film, which weakens the tension.
That atmosphere - graveyard gothic and private-eye noir - is the most effective aspect of the movie and the one that best matches the pulp content. But director Joel Schumacher (Batman Returns) lets the energy flag whenever we return to reality and, worse, we're never really persuaded that Carrey is the victim of mystic forces.
It's too bad, because buried in the premise is a wonderful concept that's either on the cutting edge of Darwinian philosophy or weird science at its wackiest: memes, hypothesized units of human evolution that spread from mind to mind as words, phrases or images.
Check out philosopher Daniel Dennett and biologist Richard Dawkins, both leaders in their fields and prominent meme enthusiasts. The way the 23 obsession spreads in the movie is a textbook example of a meme at work. The way the hero's son effortlessly enters his father's obsession but never becomes troubled by it could have provided the basis for a truly fascinating thriller.
The plot device at the end, on the other hand, is a textbook example of a plausibility gap you could drive a truck through. It's hard to blame writer Fernley Phillips, though. Nobody's even come close to making that twist work since John Croydon and Jan Read penned The Haunted Strangler for Boris Karloff in 1958.