In a quest to cure movie discourse boredom, one columnist ventures wildly into the fray with Jim Carrey.
The perfect grace note when I chose this week’s topic—and being that this was one of the deadest weeks in living memory as far as movie discourse, the search for literally anything worth writing about was distended, frantic, and bleak—was that it did not occur to me until I sat down to write that this piece would go live on August 23rd. My choice of topic was the end result of the totally random process of “shit there’s nothing to write about this week,” “okay, why don’t I pick a random movie I’ve never seen before and write about it,” “okay, why not this, under the flimsy excuse of it being a six-months-late tenth anniversary piece.” And then I looked at the time and date on my laptop screen and realized what tomorrow (as of writing) was. It lent a moment’s doubt as to whether my take on the movie I was to write about was accurate. But only a moment’s. Coincidence is a beautiful thing, to be embraced as part of life’s great tapestry, rather than doubted, down which road is ruin. And so, let us proceed to the 2007 psychological thriller The Number 23.
It is not a good movie, and it is not a bad enough movie to fully meet the Platonic ideal of good/bad. It is not silly enough to be a proper unintentional comedy, although it is far too silly to be taken seriously. It is too weird to succeed as pop entertainment, though not weird enough in the right ways to be a source of substantive critical treasure on a retrospective deep dive. What it has in the ways of assets as a movie are: some sharp cinematography by Matthew Libatique, who works stylishly in several discrete modes depending on whether the events in a given scene are baseline reality, a scene from the book within a movie (also titled The Number 23), or a flashback; the patented Joel Schumacher touch, an affably lurid two-drinks-in-the-bag “yeah we all know the script is shit but we’re all getting paid so what the fuck” mise en scene; and some engaging “minimalist” scenery chewing (something to which The Schumacher Touch lends itself pliantly) from just about everyone who sashays through the frame. Finally, and most essentially, The Number 23 has the exquisite good manners to be under an hour and forty minutes, because, for all its protestations about the numerological significance of the number 23, the real magic numbers are thriller run times with two digits.
I remember not seeing it when it first came out because it was recommended to me by someone who swore it was a revolutionary masterpiece and that “they” (as in The Man, not as in the person telling me this bullshit) were suppressing it with bad reviews in order to keep the truth about “the 23 enigma” from coming to light. This offended my sensibilities, because to real grown folk who put their tinfoil pants on one leg at a time this whole 23 bullshit is Flinstones chewable paranoia. I have grassy knoll Carlos Marcello and the CIA conspiracy theories about fucking basketball, okay, Jim Carrey bugging his eyes out and counting up to 23 doesn’t impress me. The reason this whole 23 thing sounds like someone came up with it while he was on heroin so all the squares would leave and allow him to shoot more heroin is that William S. Burroughs came up with it. It has an Illuminati connection so civilians will go “hey, it has an Illuminati connection, it must be real shit,” but no. It’s not real shit.
Salvation for The Number 23 comes in its revelation that it’s not a call to stay woke, it’s just an insanely convoluted amnesia movie. Amnesia movies are great. Amnesia and reincarnation (which, parenthetically, are why Dead Again is a masterpiece) are the two things you can put in any movie, no matter how bad, and I will say “you have my attention and a degree of my goodwill, please proceed.” The Number 23 is pretty bad. But because the way the book Jim Carrey gets obsessed with in it got written is that Jim Carrey went duck-fucking nuts and killed someone, and then wrote the book as a confession, and then jumped out the window, and then didn’t die but got amnesia, and somehow became a normal if weird boring dude, and then met cute with Virginia Madsen within seconds of getting discharged from the hospital, it’s all weirdly salvaged as an ordinary bad movie. I was terrified for a long stretch that the book was going to have some supernatural origin, or actually be the source of the great unifying truth of human existence (or, worse, both), and was greatly relieved when the amnesia explanation was proffered instead. The way it’s revealed in the writing and staging is horrendously bad, but I say, don’t shoot the messenger. At least it was amnesia.
The thing, oddly, that makes me most glad that I chose The Number 23 to watch at random is that it’s exactly the kind of movie one does not think to watch for the first time after so much distance from its promotional hype cycle. It actually being bad doesn’t mean the experience wasn’t worthwhile because after all, one must often sift through many rocks to find buried gold. This movie certainly wasn’t gold but it was never boring, which isn’t an inherent virtue, but it’s better than nothing. And I have to confess it is kind of creepy that I didn’t even realize this was going to get posted on the 23rd until I’d already pitched the idea, watched the movie, and started writing. But not very. It just makes for a good hook.