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What's scary is the story line

A thriller? The plot for `The Number 23' is so convoluted it might be better off repackaged as a comedy.

February 23, 2007|Kevin Crust | Times Staff Writer

In a chilling TV commercial that's been airing for a home security system, a mother snaps a photo of her two ballerina daughters. When she glances down at the viewfinder, she sees a man's face in the darkened window behind them. That 30-second spot has more scares in it than the entirety of the ridiculously inept thriller "The Number 23."

Written by newcomer Fernley Phillips and directed by veteran Joel Schumacher, the movie stars Jim Carrey as Walter Sparrow, an animal-control officer who goes off the deep end after being bitten by a spooky dog named Ned and reading an odd novel found in a used-book store by his wife, Agatha (Virginia Madsen in the lesser of her two supporting wife roles for the week).

The crudely self-published tome, called "The Number 23," details the dark doings of a gumshoe named Fingerling who falls victim to a homicidal obsession with the eponymous digits of the book's title.

Sparrow (apparently no relation to Jack) begins to see connections between his life and the mysterious book and becomes likewise fixated with the 2-3.

It's a Stephen King-like scenario and if handled with a little nuance might have made for a nice, scary ride. Instead, the filmmakers get it all wrong from the get-go. Everyone seems to be approaching the material from a different direction with unintentional humor seeping in from all angles.

The story is maddeningly convoluted, and for the little narrative logic that eventually emerges, it might as well have been improvised. Every twist and turn -- none of which really adds up in the end -- appear to exist strictly for the sake of plot with no thought given to character motivation.

Why, for instance, does it take Sparrow almost a week to read this relatively slim book that he's supposedly obsessed with other than to allow the story to stretch out to numeric dates that fulfill some harebrained apophenia -- the experience of seeing patterns or connections in random or meaningless data.

Carrey has never looked so uncomfortable on-screen. As Sparrow, he's neutered with about as much personality as a fireplug. He fares a little better in the fantasy sequences as Fingerling, with his slicked-back hair and bad boy tattoos, though those sequences feel like such self-parody that the character comes across as some wrong-side-of-the-tracks cousin of Ace Ventura.

Poor Schumacher throws a dizzying array of stylistics at the screen to no avail. Based on the number of inadvertent laughs the movie gets -- I'd say it's way more than 23 -- New Line might have been better off repackaging it as a comedy.

How bad is "The Number 23"? It gives "Batman & Robin" a run for its money as the worst of the director's long career.

When Sparrow initially spurns Agatha's offer to let him read the book, he says, "And have some writer fill my head with nonsense? I'll wait for the movie."

Frankly, I'd skip the movie as well.

"The Number 23." MPAA rating: R for violence, disturbing images, sexuality and language. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes. In general release.

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