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The Number 23: Fuzzy math

New thriller just doesn't add up

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The thriller The Number 23 and other movies seem naturally drawn to conspiracies, perhaps because, in a way, movies are conspiracies. Persons unknown to you gather in unusual places -- often away from U.S. soil -- to assemble films, and then marshal shadowy forces to entice you to see them (those would be the marketing departments). Ultimately, in darkened rooms, films employ up-to-date technology and timeless narrative techniques to manipulate your emotions. They're out to get you one way or another.

Along with trying to frighten the ticket buyer and give Jim Carrey a chance to show his dark side, The Number 23 attempts to popularize a relatively unknown obsession, hoping to enlist new recruits in conspiratorial theorizing on a par with the cultists of the Kennedy assassination or the Da Vinci code. The Number 23's central idea never seizes the audience's imagination the way the most potent conspiracies can, while the cinematic storytelling, slick to a fault, only fitfully retains our interest.

Early on we see Jim Carrey, sporting his Eternal Sunshine stubbly sad-sack look, sitting depressed in a truck. As small-town animal control officer Walter Sparrow, he gets bitten by a stray dog in an early scene in a filthy alley, and we can't help but think "Boy, Ace Ventura, Pet Detective, has hit rock bottom."

Despite his gloomy demeanor, Walter seems to live a fairly laid-back, contented life with his wife, Agatha (Virginia Madsen), and teenage son, Robin (Logan Lerman). Walter's personality shifts when Agatha gives him a mysterious book from a secondhand store. Written by "Topsy Kretts," the book titled The Number 23 recounts the life of an urban detective whose background has striking similarities to Walter. As Walter reads the Jim Thompson-esque crime story, he imagines himself as a tough, tattooed hero in the increasingly lurid scenes, shot like film noir.

The book also introduces Walter to the longstanding "23 enigma," which supposedly hinges on many strange coincidences. Earth's axis is on a 23-degree angle. Two divided by three is .666. The 23rd psalm is the most famous. And so on. Soon Walter's scribbling names and numbers across walls and even counting his wife's shoes, finding combinations with 23 seemingly wherever he looks. He also finds a link to a notorious murder, and wonders if Topsy Kretts is the killer, still at large.

To resonate with contemporary audiences, a conspiracy or sinister pattern of coincidences should have some deeper implications. The JFK or Mary Magdalene mysteries may have no basis in truth, but they speak to unanswered historical questions and genuine public suspicion over religious and political institutions. But as Agatha points out, if you look for 23 long enough, you'll probably find it eventually. Rather than induce real paranoia, The Number 23's numerology merely feels arbitrary, like a fixation for the tinfoil-hat crowd.

It's no surprise that Carrey, having recently made such comedies as Fun With Dick and Jane, would want to apply his patented manic energy to a performance that intersects with genuine madness. But because we're used to him bouncing off the walls, his jittery portrayal here, however fitting for the action, isn't much of a surprise. He's most affecting in the scenes with Lerman, both sleuthing enthusiastically with his son and trying to protect him.

Madsen gives a grounding to Agatha as a stock concerned-wife role, and doubles as the detective's kinky love interest in the fantasy scenes. Because we never get a sense that Agatha has skeletons in her closet, the doubling merely feels like an exercise. The Number 23 lives down to the reputation of director Joel Schumacher (infamous for Batman and Robin) for emphasizing style over substance. The unnecessarily busy, sepia-colored flashback scenes and bloody nightmare fake-outs serve as competent goth eye candy, but contribute little to either the suspense or the characters.

Middling suspense films such as this one often rise or fall on the strength of their final twist, and The Number 23's screenwriter, Fernley Phillips, constructs one that's not bad, but not tight enough to bring the numerology and film-noir flourishes together. The film does succeed at raising the profile, at least through opening weekend, of the 23 enigma. Maybe the conspiracy is succeeding better than it seems.

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