Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
March 2007

Fuzzy math

All the silly explanations in the world don't add up in 'The Number 23'

The Number 23
New Line Cinema
Director: Joel Schumacher
Screenplay: Fernley Phillips
Starring: Jim Carrey, Virginia Madsen, Danny Huston, Logan Lerman, Lynn Collins and Mark Pellegrino
Rated R / 1 hour, 35 minutes
Opened February 23, 2007
(out of four)

There are two movies being released, one on top of the other, that deal with the same thing: Obsession. It's always been a recurring topic in the movies - as basic an emotion as love, anger or fear; as popular a subject matter as revenge.

The first film, Joel Schumacher's The Number 23, is one of those popcorn psychological thrillers that have been especially popular since M. Night Shyamalan's great The Sixth Sense was the surprise hit of 1999.

The other, David Fincher's Zodiac, has been lumped into the serial-killer subgenre but fits better as a police/journalistic procedural.

  The Number 23

Both movies deal with compulsions of men to understand or deal with something that has, for one reason or another, gripped ahold of their intellect. Now, naturally, the two have completely different aims and intentions, so it's not all that fair to compare the two. But in this case, one of these movies happens to deal with these issues with exhaustive stupidity, while the other is calm, tactful and intelligent. I'll let you figure out which is which.

Zodiac is something of a stylistic departure for Fincher, who is known for his gritty hyperkinetic style in films like SE7EN and Fight Club. In taking on the infamous Zodiac killer, he doesn't relish in the gory details and macabre atmosphere he did when he brought us John Doe. Instead, he offers restraint - a methodical, episodic recreation of an investigation that went through many hands and took hold in many minds. The obsession that drives the film is that of Robert Graysmith (whose book is the basis for the film), a cartoonist for The San Francisco Chronicle who is little more than a voyeur during the original investigation but who becomes consumed by the case in later years as it becomes stale old news.

The almost-inexplicable way the Zodiac case becomes his lifeblood is a perfect example of how to manufacture internal tension. We actually see his family get pushed to the side, his priorities get thrown out of whack, and as Graysmith, Jake Gyllenhaal becomes a thoroughly combustible character threatened merely by the possibility that he will never be able to figure the case out.

Now let's segue back to our main topic, The Number 23. The main character here, Walter Sparrow (Jim Carrey), also has an obsession. And it, too, begins to tear his life and family apart. Or so the movie tells us. It never, however, shows us. The screenplay jumps ahead of itself and never catches up. The plot has hardly gotten off the ground, and already Walter is pleading with his wife to give him another chance to save a marriage that we never knew was in jeopardy in the first place. The film knows where it's going, but has no idea how to get there - only that it should . . . somehow.

The title refers to a book that Walter happens upon in a bookstore one night. It's billed as "a novel about obsession," and concerns the titular number and all the bizarre (possibly Satanic, though the film doesn't seem to know for sure) connotations that it brings with it. Walter not only buys into the obsession of the book he's reading - ignoring the common sense that should tell him, and everyone around him, that one could pull off the same tricks with any other number - but is disturbed by how closely the novel parallels his own life.

The film has two narratives going on - both shoddily constructed. There is the main arc, which is of Walter, his wife, Agatha (Virginia Madsen, poor woman) and his teenage son Robin (Logan Lerman). (And no, in case you're wondering, the movie never makes a point about how ridiculous the name Robin Sparrow is.)

He's an animal-control officer, but since his disturbed childhood, he's always dreamed of being a private detective. That's where the second narrative comes in - the narrative of the book. It so parallels his own life that he imagines himself in the title role of a P.I., his wife as the sexy femme fatale and his best friend (Danny Huston) as . . . well, some sort of bad guy. In both narratives, the protagonist is obsessed with the number, which he feels holds some kind of unexplained power and significance. All it takes is some creative mathematics and a big stretch of the imagination, and he can find the number anywhere.

But "unexplained" is the key word there. I know you're supposed to leave logic at the door for a movie like this, but when it can't even follow its own twisted logic? It's practically our duty as moviegoers to tune out at that point.

I have to tread gently around the problems so that I don't ruin it for those poor souls unfortunate enough to be seeing this movie in the near future. But let's go to the end. Once 90 minutes have passed and all the film's secrets have been revealed, there is a very clear series of events that should explain everything.

Once you've seen the movie, think about that series of events. Consider the timeline. Consider how long each of the events in question would have taken. A year or two here, nine months there . . .

If you haven't already, you'll soon realize that nothing fits. Nothing makes sense. If it were just a slight plot hole, we could forgive it. But the entire movie rests on the explanation of the film's mysteries. Which is to say it rests on the absence of any intelligence or even basic common sense. Didn't the filmmakers ever go back through their own movie to make sure things worked? Didn't screenwriter Fernley Phillips ever learn how to connect the dots? Wasn't that, like, first grade? Does he know his colors and his times-tables? Or did he miss that day as well?

Consider his logic: A character dubbed the "Suicide Blonde" explains her own obsession with the number 23, telling us (using numbered values for letters), "My favorite color is pink! Red is 27, white is 65; 27 plus 65 is 92! Pink has four letters; 92 divided by four is 23! AAAAAAAHHHH!"

What does her favorite color have to do with it? What does the number of letters in the word have to do with it? I haven't a clue. Neither does Fernley Phillips.

The Number 23 is further proof that all you really need is a gimmick - not a story or any characters. But there's so little beneath the surface gimmick that it seems the actors are just making up the dialogue - and the story - as they go along. Everything in this movie is either laughably obvious or laughably illogical. Or just plain laughable.

Welcome to the cinema of Joel Schumacher. This guy's been making crappy studio pictures for two decades, but this may be his absolute worst. This is the one that solidifies his spot in the Hollywood Hack Hall of Fame, joining such esteemed hacks as Chris Columbus, McG, Tony Scott and Renny Harlin. It's easy to compare his work on The Number 23 to Fincher's work with Zodiac. The latter provides an extraordinary amount of information in careful detail without ever becoming the least bit confusing. The former provides little-to-no information, and yet is impossible to logically understand. Go figure.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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