"All the characters in this book are fictitious, and anyone finding a resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, should proceed no further ..." Disclaimer from the novel 'The Number 23.' Sadly no such disclaimer was given to the beginning of this film, which could serve as a warning to people who might be wanting those two hours from their lives back, should they ignore it and watch the film. Okay, that might be a bit harsh, but not by too much. This film reunites director Joel Schumacher with star Jim Carrey, who both worked over-the-top together in 1995's Batman Forever. Oddly enough (although unrelated) that was the same year that gave us Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls. It would still be a few more years, three to be exact, until we would start to see the serious side of Jim Carrey, in 1998's The Truman Show. Since then he's dabbled in more dramatic roles in films like Simon Birch, The Majestic, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and arguably Man on the Moon, but he has never really managed to capture audiences when he plays a dramatic role the same way he does when he's in a comedy.
In fact, Bruce Almighty grossed more than those four films combined. So, with all that in mind, it might seem strange that Carrey would turn to a much darker role in a thriller like The Number 23. Although on paper the film actually sounds intriguing: a happily married man with a teenage son starts to become unraveled by a mysterious novel his wife gives him one day. It taps into a hidden obsession that some people have with "The 23 Enigma," and he soon becomes obsessed with it. He is also convinced that the book is actually written about him, and that somehow the author used his life as a template for the book. In some of the particularly darker scenes in the film, Walter (Carrey) imagines himself as the main character, Detective Fingerling, in the novel, and his wife Agatha (Virginia Madsen) as the dark and sexy Fabrizia, his love interest. His wife's friend and academic Isaac (Danny Huston) who tells Walter about the 23 enigma is also cast in his dark fantasies as psychologist Dr. Miles Phoenix.
At any rate, the film hits its highest moments as Walters's obsession with 23 reaches a fever pitch, and they start to figure out who the mysterious author (cleverly pseudonym-ed as 'Topsy Kretts' - top secrets) is and why he wrote the book. Although near the end, two characters perform a task that requires enormous leaps of logical faith on the behalf of the audience to be understood, and it makes the ending of the film almost farcical. Combine that and the bad detective scenes with the fact that the brilliant Danny Huston is utterly wasted as Isaac/Dr. Phoenix, and the whole house of cards starts to fall down around your ears.
In his defense, Carrey does a much better job playing Walter Sparrow than he does with Detective Fingerling. The unfortunate problem he faces is that we've come so much to expect him to be the funny guy in a movie, that when he tackles something as dense and different as this, we ultimately feel unfulfilled with what we get from him. Which is truly regrettable, because he was great in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It is easy to identify with him as he stumbles through Walter's humdrum life as a dogcatcher, and you can understand why he seeks some sort of escape with the novel and the 23s. It's just that the rest of the story, which involves a bizarre twist, doesn't hold up nearly as well.
The film isn't quite as dark or disturbing as the ad campaign makes it out to be, and most of the violent scenes take place in Walter's fantasy version of the novel in his head. Oddly enough, Virginia Madsen, who seems pretty plain-jane as his wife Agatha, really makes a mark when she plays Fabrizia in his fantasy scenes. She's a vixen in every sense of the word who is turned on by death and power, and it's nice to see her stretching her legs (literally) in a role like this ... especially after she was terribly miscast and underutilized in Firewall. Here's hoping she has some better roles coming her way soon. And if I'm ending a review talking about how one of the other actors needs to be in better roles, well you can probably guess by now what I thought about The Number 23.