Terminally Unlucky Case File #145: The Number 23

Terminally Unlucky Case File #145: The Number 23

Twenty-three was a magical number to me when I was growing up. I was lucky enough to come of age sports-wise during the heyday of the greatest athlete in the history of the universe: Michael Jordan. Throughout my adolescence, Jordan’s #23 jersey was synonymous with everything good in the world: victory, accomplishment, mastery, the city-wide glow following The Bulls’ astonishing six championships, and my beloved hometown of Chicago. 

So when it came time for me to pick a number for my Team Onion softball jersey, there was only one number I considered: good old number 23. I’d always considered 23 my lucky number. So you can imagine how surprised I was to learn that 23 is the unluckiest number in existence. The ad campaign for today’s entry in My Year Of Flops, 2007’s The Number 23, went out of its way to depict 23 as history’s greatest monster, worse even than Jimmy Carter.

According to The Number 23, 23 is evil in numerical form. That number will murder your children. It will fuck your girlfriend while you’re away at Bible camp. It will steal your identity, destroy your credit, and fill your computer with kiddie porn. It was the second shooter on the grassy knoll. It faked the moon landing. It green-lit reality shows for every single member of the Kardashian family, even the inbred ones they hide from the public. 

Twenty-three is the most evil number in the world. But what about 666? How can 23 compete with the Mark Of The Beast? I hope you’re sitting down and holding onto your cranium tightly, for what I am about to tell you will blow your mind right through your fucking skull and into the stratosphere. What is 2 divided by 3? That’s right, motherfucker: .666. Whoa. Even El Diablo has to get in on this red-hot 23 action.

If I’ve learned anything from two viewings of The Number 23, it’s that any possible combination of 23 is also 23. You can twist and contort and jumble numbers until everything takes on the sinister shape of a 2 followed by a 3. Here’s an example: The Number 23 is the 145th Case File for My Year Of Flops. I began the essay by discussing the No. 1 basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan. What was Jordan’s number when he came back from retirement? It was 45, the next two numbers after—wait for it—his original 23. Dude, it’s like circles within circles within circles of convoluted bullshit. 

Jim Carrey, who named his production company JC23, had ample reason to both be terrified of the number 23 and inexplicably excited about starring in The Number 23. According to a 2007 Time profile by Joel Stein, Carrey’s obsession with 23 predated The Number 23 by many years:

[Carrey] brings out a list of talking points—all typed out—that he is going to tell me about the number 23, in which he’s been interested for years (his daughter has a “23” tattoo), whether I want to hear them or not. “Blood takes 23 seconds to circulate the body… Jim Carrey plus Virginia Madsen is 23 letters… Jim Carrey plus Joel Schumacher is 23 letters… I was born at 2:30 a.m.…” I shall spare you the rest. Especially since I’m not sure how his observation that O.J. Simpson wore No. 32 fits in.

According to The Number 23 director Joel Schumacher, Carrey had to be in a good place emotionally in order to survive the stress of a project as intense as The Number 23. Stein quotes Schumacher as saying “I’ve seen [Carrey] really suffer in love. He wasn’t ready to go to the places he goes in this movie back then. He was afraid that if he went to those dark places, his life would be misery the whole time he was making the movie. But now life is good for Jim. He could tear his heart down, then go home.”

Carrey needed to be in a happy place in order to take on the role of a wacky dogcatcher whose complete physical and mental breakdown is brought to you by the number 23 and the letters in a creepy book written by a mysterious figure. Using a wacky dogcatcher played by Jim Carrey as the entry point for a dark psychological thriller is like trying to make a harrowing Taxi Driver-like exploration of mental illness by casting Chris Farley as a clumsy, pratfall-addled waiter. But miscasting is only the first of the film’s problems. 

In a performance designed to fritter away the goodwill engendered by Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Carrey stars as a wholesome husband and father whose charmed existence begins to unravel when wife Virginia Madsen buys him a copy of a mysterious, self-published book called The Number 23 by the aforementioned Topsy Kretts, a professional colleague of such noted authors as N. Cognito, Nada Fakename, and R.U. Friedkin Kiddingme. 

Carrey begins reading the book, and is horrified and fascinated to discover countless parallels between its detective hero, Fingerling, and himself. Fingerling functions as Carrey’s dark id; we can tell he’s tormented and sinister because he has the gaunt, hollow-eyed look of a crackhead, plus he plays the saxophone, rocks a dirty wife-beater, and sports the kind of tribal markings favored by college students, and to a much lesser extent, Maori warriors. 

While Carrey chases dogs and pals around with his family, his sinister doppelgänger encounters a mysterious figure known only as “Suicide Blonde.” In this clip, Suicide Blonde explains how everything in the world somehow comes down to the number 23. This marks the beginning of the film’s bold, nonsensical descent into numeral-based horror. Director Joel Schumacher and screenwriter Fernley Phillips (whose name sounds only slightly more real than Topsy Kretts) work up a sweat trying, and failing, to make numbers terrifying. But first, they attempt an even bigger challenge: trying to evoke gut-wrenching terror out of a book sitting on a shelf in a store.

After Suicide Blonde offs herself (with a name like that, dying of old age is out of the question) Carrey’s literary doppelgänger begins having sweaty, Skinemax-ready sex with a mysterious, black-haired Italian femme fatale also played by Madsen. But the most evil number in the world won’t leave him alone. While giving Madsen the old Hong Kong Handshake, Carrey can’t help but count Madsen’s shoes. ’Cause it means something, man! I won’t tell you how many pairs of shoes there are in Madsen’s closet, but it is less than 24 and more than 22.

Carrey then begins investigating the mysterious book. His quest leads to the grave of a college student (Rhona Mitra) who was killed in her (yes!) 23rd year, apparently by her psychology professor. Carrey becomes convinced the professor furtively wrote the novel as a veiled confession. He hunts down the book’s publisher and plunges deeper into paranoia and madness. 

The filmmakers undoubtedly felt they were making a noir-colored exploration of fate, destiny, predestination, conspiracy, and free will. Instead, they made a movie about a dude who is really, really afraid of a number. The Number 23 begins on a note of high camp, with an opening credit sequence that dispenses such invaluable nuggets as “The Witches Sabbath is June 23rd” and “Shakespeare was born and died on April 23rd. Shakespeare was also first published in 1623.” Each 23-related factoid is more sketchy and meaningless than the last. We’re informed, for example, that “The Mayans believed the world would end in 2012.” Since 2+0 and 1+2 add up to 2 and 3, that apparently means the Mayans got down with that spooky 23 voodoo as well. 

Before long, an unshaven, greasy-haired Carrey starts scribbling numbers on the wall of a hotel room, a crazy-man gleam in his eyes as he tries to figure out exactly why a number, of all things, wants to kill him. He isn’t helped by dialogue like the following: 

“Isaac and I took the skeleton, but I did not write the book.”

“Why don’t you wag your tail at me in the bitches’ room?” (What does that even mean?)

“His guarantee wasn’t worth the blood it was written in.” (Huh?)

“Sure, there are differences. Fingerling’s a detective. I’m a dogcatcher.”

“We’re not crazy. We circled every 23rd word on every 23rd page, and it told us to come down here.”

“Look around at all the beautiful 23s! You don’t want to disappoint them, do you?”

“The number had gone after Fingerling, and now it was coming after me.”

Bear in mind, dear reader, that The Number 23 tries to cultivate a mood of dread and existential despair. It’s consequently oddly humorless (especially for a film with Jim Carrey as a wacky dogcatcher) and unintentionally hilarious. 

Warning: Spoilers ahead… Eventually, Carrey discovers the mysterious author of The Number 23 (cue melodramatic music): himself! Carrey murdered Mitra, then wrote The Number 23 as an elaborate suicide note that took on a life of its own and morphed somehow into a novel. Then he developed amnesia and forgot all about his murder-rich past until that pesky, self-published novel brought it all back.

The Number 23 could have introduced a talking dog or alien invasion in its final 15 minutes without sacrificing its nonexistent verisimilitude. It’s possible, if not likely, that Fernley Phillips’ script could have yielded a Seven-like mindblower, but Carrey and Schumacher offer a hilariously fake simulacrum of edgy fare where every speck of dirt is the product of a details-obsessed production designer. 

The film plays like an unintentional parody of convoluted schlock; the screenplay seems to boast the hacky fingerprints of Donald Kaufman, Charlie Kaufman’s formula-and-sensationalism-addled twin brother from Adaptation. The Number 23 represents either a nadir or an apex in gimmicky exploitation; it’s where kooky, paranoid ideas and crazy-person conceits go to die. According to apocryphal Hollywood lore, Carrey fired his agent and manager during a screening of The Number 23. It’s fortunate that the film was a critical disaster and a box-office disappointment. Otherwise, Batman Forever dynamic duo Schumacher and Carrey would have re-teamed for a sequel named The Number 46, twice as terrifying as its predecessor. 

Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Failure