Conspiracy nuts have been making hay of ‘The 23 Enigma’ for decades, jumping upon the number’s ‘bizarre’ connection to everything. The Knights Templar had 23 Grand Masters… it’s 23. Kurt Cobain died in 1994. Not see it? 1 + 9 + 9 + 4. It’s 23 again, damn it. It’s everywhere, dictating life and death. It’s also complete bollocks, but that doesn’t stop it from being industrial catnip for paranoid nutbars… and Jim Carrey, who named his production company after it.
Anyone walking out of Number 23 thinking that it had the whiff of vanity project would be forgiven. Shame, as the reteaming Carrey with Batman Forever director Joel Schumacher starts out full of promise – a Se7en-esque opening sequence sets you up for some quality, dark hokum - drawing you into it, before a messy second half pulls the trapdoor.
Carrey plays Walter Sparrow, living a happy life with wife (Sideways’ Virginia Madsen) and brat. By pure coincidence, Walter ends up with The Number 23 in his hands. Discovering that the book’s hero – a hardboiled detective (also played by Carrey) who likes rough sex and moody sax – has some odd parallels to his own life, Sparrow becomes fixated on the book and its obsession with the Number 23. This quickly threatens to overturn his whole life, dredging up a painful past.
Recalling the glossy, gothy fast pace and sets of The Lost Boys and Flatliners, Schumacher has a blast with the duality of the movie, contrasting the stylised grainy pulp fiction of the PI sub-story – in which everyone doubles up their roles, vamping it up a treat - with Sparrow’s reality. Eventually the whole cast starts to look a little lost, though, losing their bearings as the characters become completely unconvincing during the final story shifts.
Just how long you stay on board the Number 23 to Wanksville depends on your stomach for increasingly fruity conspiracy and coincidence (and saxophone players). Like most paranoid theories, the movie’s only running on piss and wind - that head of steam being built up is just so much hot air. The plot eventually completely derails, then plummets off a nearby cliff, where it’s mauled by atomic sharks. But after being titled The Number 23, at least the nutters won’t have to look too hard to work out what went wrong.