The Number Made Me Do It

The Number 23
Dir. Joel Schumacher; writ. Fernley Phillips; feat. Jim Carrey, Virginia Madsen, Danny Huston, Logan Lerman (R)
… And the moral of the story is: If someone you’re repulsed by attempts to seduce you in public, decline diplomatically. Especially if she’s your boss.

Wait …

Are we talking about the same movie?

I’m afraid so. Funny thing is, the initial, very human, very down-to-earth, very “office party” segments of The Number 23 are most winning, despite director Joel Schumacher’s tendency toward spectacle, and let’s face it, cheese.

Walter (Carrey) is an animal-control officer, an average guy with a nice family and a job that’s often boring. One day, he makes the regrettable faux pas of embarrassing his drunkenly lusty boss at a Christmas party — an incident that puts him on her shitlist faster than you can say … shitlist. Not long after, his cheetah-print-laden superior orders him to capture a rogue animal at a Chinese-food restaurant (two minutes before he’s off duty). This dog-catching causes him to be late to pick up his wife, Agatha (Madsen), from her cake shop, who in turn wanders into the bookshop next door: “A Novel Fate.” There, she discovers a creased, crimson-bound book called The Number 23 and buys it for Walter.

As Walter begins reading, he notices some distinct similarities between himself and the book’s protagonist, a detective named Fingerling (this laughable moniker is explained, but that doesn’t make Carrey’s Fingerling voice any less goofy).

Soon, the line between the book’s story and reality blurs, and the pleasing quaintness of the introduction is lost: The book is a kind of brilliant, fuzzy confession from a real murderer obsessed with the number 23.

The Number 23 is Fernley Phillips’s first script, and it leaves many things to be desired. Rather than methodically dropping clues to aid the viewer in slowly discovering who the killer is, Phillips goes the Scooby-Doo route and utilizes one character to lay everything out near the end. It’s oh-so-much better when that character just fills in the blanks. A few things are left unexplained altogether, and the grand, ultimate evil of the number 23 seems a non sequitur to the film’s humbler exposition. Rhona Mitra, notably Kevin Spacey’s temptress in The Life of David Gale, is given some utterly unforgivable lines.

The stylization of The Number 23 would have been rad had it been made in the early ’90s, but in 2007, it’s feeling dated. (Of course, had it been released in the early ’90s, its marketing couldn’t have impudently boasted that 9/11/2001 adds up to 23.) A Christopher Nolan-directed/rewritten 23 could have been gloriously noir and marvelously taut. (And let’s reaffirm that Guy Pearce’s tattoos in Memento are way cooler than Carrey’s in 23.)

Silly script and overwrought visuals notwithstanding, Jim Carrey channels something Greg Kinnear-ish here as he registers emotions clearly but sans caricature. His appearance and physicality (lanky and badly postured) are much more evocative of the grown version of someone you knew in college than a cartoon character. It’s refreshing.

As you’d expect, Virginia Madsen
doesn’t play around — she’s going to have you all shook up at some point in The Number 23. Her real-life ex-husband, Danny Huston, is grossly underused as one of Agatha’s friends, and also as the mysterious Miles Phoenix in the book sequences.

If you’ve absolutely got to see a creepy psychological thriller (of which there are far too few out there these days) this one will do, but don’t unpack the old nightlight. 

Who is Danny Huston, And why is he only in this movie for five minutes?

You may not realize it, but you probably first laid eyes on Danny Huston as Waiter #2 in 1995’s Leaving Las Vegas. Humble beginnings, considering his father, John Huston, directed The Maltese Falcon. It is perhaps this humility, coupled with the 44-year-old actor’s apparently perpetual congeniality that has made him so popular among directorial royalty of late (count ‘em: Iñárritu, Scorsese, Meirelles, S. Coppola, Cuarón). Who doesn’t love a late-bloomer?

Last year we saw Huston in two roles that comprised only a few moments of actual screen time — cameos almost. Consider his Joseph in Marie Antoinette, whose primary role was that of brisk sex educator; then later, in Children of Men, as Clive Owen’s affluent one-scene brother. A strange turn after 2005, which was a year of meaty roles for Huston, who found something pitiable in The Constant Gardener’s Sandy Woodrow, and then transformed into the brutal Arthur Burns for The Proposition.

You might say that today, to cast the fine actor Danny Huston is to send something of a secret code to a niche audience; an art-house audience. But don’t be fooled, sisters and brothers, The Number 23 is not indie (or semi-indie) fare, and Huston is better than his minor role in it.


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