Under the bombastic, huge-and-goofy guidance of director Joel Schumacher ("Batman and Robin," "Phone Booth"), "The Number 23" wants us to accept two opposing things. One, it wants us to agree that Walter Sparrow (Carrey) is crazy for becoming obsessed with the number 23. Two, it wants us to be scared of all the spooky 23-related coincidences that pop up, just like Walter is. Now, we can find the 23 stuff eerie, or we can think Walter is insane for finding it eerie, but we can't do both. I know that, and I'm not even a logician.
Walter is a dog catcher in a medium-sized town who stumbles across a tattered, self-published book called "The Number 23" in a used-book store. His wife, Agatha (Virginia Madsen), had enough time while waiting for him one evening to read or skim the entire tome there in the shop; evidently Walter is a slower reader, as it takes him the next several days.
Granted, he gets sidetracked. The book is a pulpy detective story in which the P.I. sees a woman driven mad by the number 23's frequent occurrence in everyday life. Soon the detective is obsessed, too -- and so is Walter. For you see, the story seems to Walter like a slightly fictionalized version of his own real life.
So there are three mysteries afoot now. Is the number 23 truly a mystical, powerful number? Who wrote this novel? (The cover says "Topsy Kretts," obviously a pseudonym.) And are the similarities to Walter's life intentional or coincidental?
We see much of the book enacted through Walter's eyes, narrated by him and featuring himself and other characters playing their counterparts (he's the detective, Agatha is the femme fatale, etc.). It's a far-flung story, and meant to be a little over-the-top, but it's no more ridiculous than the movie we're watching, which was meant to be taken seriously.
The "23" coincidences are along these lines: The terrorist attacks happened on 9/11/2001, and 9+11+2+0+0+1=23. The Titanic sank on 4/15/1912, and 4+1+5+1+9+1+2=23. "George Herbert Walker Bush" and "William Jefferson Clinton" each have 23 letters. There are 23 letters in the Latin alphabet. Walter and Agatha met when Walter was 23, and his birthday is Feb. 3 (2/3).
I apologize if I have terrified you.
Agatha is at first amused, then alarmed, by Walter's obsession. Their adolescent son, Robin (Logan Lerman) -- yes, his name is Robin Sparrow -- thinks it's cool to be obsessive-compulsive with his dad. Family friend Isaac (Danny Huston), a college professor of some kind, lends counseling. But Walter just becomes more and more frenzied in his attempts to unravel the mysteries.
It's a pretty shaky premise to begin with, and the more Walter prattles on about the number 23, the more laughable it gets. Adding to the air of unintentional comedy are several loopy details in Fernley Phillips' screenplay: A dog that keeps showing up everywhere; a chance meeting occurring the very moment someone leaves a mental hospital; an old man and a post office box and 23 empty boxes.
Were they TRYING to make a movie worthy of ridicule and derision? No, I think this is just how Joel Schumacher makes movies. Like many of the most enjoyable bad movies, I can say this for it: It's never boring. But it's never thrilling, sensible, or believable, either.