As I started watching "The Number 23," I couldn't help remembering the little 1998 film from Darren Aronofsky called "Pi." That was the offbeat story of an eccentric mathematician who was slowly going mad while hunting for numerical order in the universe in the number for pi, the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, approximately 3.1416 to infinity. I rather enjoyed the Aronofsky film, and the similarities with "The Number 23," although superficial, are apt. "The Number 23," you see, is also about a man becoming obsessed by the implications of a mathematical integer.
The differences in the movies, though, are more striking. First, a bigger-name director, Joel Schumacher ("St. Elmo's Fire," "The Lost Boys," "Flatliners," "Falling Down," The Client," "Phone Booth," "The Phantom of the Opera") helmed "The Number 23." Second, two bigger-name actors, Jim Carrey and Virginia Madsen, star in it. And, third, the budget for "The Number 23" would have financed about 500 movies like "Pi." Yet, for all that, "The Number 23" carries its plot through to such an exaggerated conclusion that it ruins everything it builds up so carefully in the beginning. In that regard, the little indie "Pi" is by far the better film.
"The Number 23" concerns a very ordinary man named Walter Sparrow (Carrey), a dog catcher working for the Animal Control Department of a suburban town. One day his wife, Agatha (Madsen), buys him a secondhand novel she happens to see in a bookstore, a novel called "The Number 23" by Topsy Kretts. It's all about a fellow named Fingerling who becomes obsessed with the number 23, and the most surprising thing about the book's character is that it seems to reflect the real life of Walter himself. The more Walter reads, the more convinced he becomes that the book's main character is really him. Coincidence?
Then, the book introduces Walter to the number 23. Now, it seems like everything in his life adds up to 23, and it starts Walter thinking: His name, his birthday, his driver's license, his social security number, even his address all add up to 23.
Even scarier is that in the book, Fingerling is a killer, and it's then that Walter begins to have terrible nightmares. The number begins to consume his life and warp his mind. Not his wife, not his teenage son (Logan Lerman), not a family friend (Danny Huston) can persuade Walter that the business of the number is all in his mind, that it's all just an elaborate sport for paranoid delusionals, or that it's all simply a big, clever game, like the so-called "Bible Code," where you can find whatever you want in it.
But nothing stops Walter's phantasms. He becomes possessed by the number, and he begins to see schemes and conspiracies all around him. He even takes a hotel room with the number 23; the number is coming to get him.
All for the good. The movie's first half holds up reasonably well, even if it seems repetitious at times. I especially liked the slow decline of poor Walter into fantasyland, and I liked Schumacher's darker and darker tone as Walter gets nuttier and nuttier. I felt a small distraction, though, at the beginning where Carrey is looking for the role; I wasn't quite sure if Carrey were doing it for laughs or not. But the actor soon enough finds the character and gets down to serious business.
It's then that the movie falls apart. By the second half, the story takes an abrupt right turn and suddenly becomes a noir mystery thriller, at which point its gets spacier, spookier, and a whole lot sillier. The plot becomes more melodramatic and muddled, finally following no logic and making almost no sense whatsoever.
When the denouement arrives, it is too contrived, too convenient, and far too unlikely to satisfy one's curiosity. Worse, the revelation comes much too soon, leaving far too long for its concluding explanation, which is an even further let-down. It's all a decided disappointment, given the decent buildup we've experienced and the payoff we've anticipated.
In all, "The Number 23" promises more than it delivers. And it can't make up its mind what it wants to deliver.
New Line engineers preserve the movie's 2.40:1 theatrical aspect ratio. The image is remarkably clean, which is its major claim to fame. I could find no added noise and very little inherent film grain. On a more negative note, the video quality itself is rather soft in its delineation and slightly dull in appearance. A lot of the action occurs at night or in dark rooms, so expect a good deal of murkiness, with an accompanying loss of detail and definition.
Your audio choices are Dolby Digital 5.1 surround and 2.0 stereo. The 5.1 is pretty good most of the time, although it sometimes gets too rambunctious for its own good. The music is often too loud relative to the dialogue, and everything comes blaring out at the listener with a huge dynamic range and impact. The bass can be boomy, too, although it is acceptably deep. The surrounds hold out until the second half of the film before they really start coming to life, and then their sounds can be quite effective. Finally, I should add that I found the overall audio quality somewhat soft, despite its wallop, sort of like the video image, so I suppose they're a good match.
To start things off, it includes both the unrated and R-rated theatrical versions of the movie. Then, there is a major attraction called "Infinifilm," which allows the viewer to see any number of options that go beyond the film, and the viewer can play them either during the film itself or from a separate list. It was far more stuff than I had time to watch, but I'll explain the items briefly.
The main one is a "Fact Track Trivia" that presents a series of informational pop-ups throughout the theatrical version of the film. There is a also a director's commentary that one can listen to on the theatrical version as well. Then, there are sixteen deleted scenes, fourteen minutes' worth, with an alternate ending. Next, there is a twenty-five-minute documentary, "The Number 23 Enigma," where a group of mathematicians provide the amazing math behind certain "mystical" numbers. And after that are three featurettes: "The Making of the Number 23," twenty-two minutes; "How to Find Your Life Path Number," all about numerology; and "Creating the World of Fingerling," eleven minutes on the look of the film, the sets, locations, CGI, etc.
If that weren't enough, there are twenty-three scene selections (of course), but no chapter insert; a widescreen theatrical trailer; Sneak Peeks at several other New Line titles; English as the only spoken language; and English captions for the hearing impaired. To reinforce the illusion of the movie further, the folks at New Line have enclosed the keep case in a slipcover that duplicates the front of the movie's book.
"The Number 23" starts with a promising idea, allows it devolve into chaos, and, finally, grinds it into the trite and mundane. Certainly, the movie has its good points, Jim Carrey's and Virginia Madsen's performances, for example, and the story's basic premise, and some eerie, David Fincher-style atmospherics; but ultimately it can only frustrate those viewers who invested so much time in its first half. What could have been an intriguing psychological drama turns into a mediocre crime thriller. Oh, well....