Walter Sparrow (Jim Carrey) is a dog catcher stuck in a pleasant, but boring life. When his wife (Virginia Madsen) purchases a book called "The Number 23" as a gift, Walter becomes consumed with the novel's alternate detective story universe and numeric puzzles, taking him to the brink of obsession when it can't quite solve them. While his family is politely intrigued with the mystery, Walter heads right off the deep end, chasing the book's enigmas to a point of mania and violence, and remaining fixated on the multiple meanings behind the number 23.
"Number 23" has a distinctive concept and Jim Carrey seems raring to tango with this convoluted jigsaw puzzle, but the picture never connects with the audience in a rewarding way. It's a constipated thriller; a delusional pinch of misdirection and screenwriting runaround that should've been a bottle rocket to the brain, but instead suffocates in style and a lack of imagination.
Screenwriter Fernley Phillips and director Joel Schumacher seem at odds over what this movie should ultimately be. Phillips has written a piece that's meant to bend minds with a story of paranoia, shady literary identities (the book's noir characters are also played by Carrey and Madsen), and the complexities behind that pesky title number.
Schumacher, on the other hand, takes a more conventional approach, trusting his blockbuster-trained directorial skills will help decode the film for a mass audience by the end. "Number" was probably a bit of hell raising fiction at one point during the development process, but Schumacher waters it down with his self-conscious cinematography and neuters it with some unfortunate choices in the editing room.
There should be some point in the picture when Walter finds a spark in the book that he bonds with, thus persuading the viewer to follow him. The moment never shows up in "Number." Walter goes from twitchy dog catcher to maniacal 23 enthusiast in barely the blink of an eye, heaving the film to a second act the production hasn't laid the groundwork for. It's frustrating because this is exactly the type of picture that needs to calm down and make sure, for every minute it runs, that everyone's onboard. Schumacher loses his patience too soon.
Star Jim Carrey loves to play this sort of loose cannon and his performance is serviceable to the tornado of freak out occurrences that intermittently pop up in the film. Schumacher keeps the actor grounded throughout; preferring instead that Carrey stand back and let him dream up all the oddities. The 23 sequences are undeniably silly, but it's a credit to Carrey's persistence that they don't reach heights of parody.
"Number" has one of those climaxes that impart the filmmakers with a feeling of accomplishment that they could dream up a hodgepodge of left turns nobody could predict. Of course, Schumacher needs 20 minutes of Carrey voiceover to feel assured it strings together, but there's a mood of twist-ending pride that radiates off the film as it closes.
I'm positive that same sensation will not be shared by the viewer, who will have to beat off the frightening convention of last-act confusion with a stick to even come close to appreciating whatever hidden treasures "The Number 23" is convinced it holds.