Conspiracy Theories Retro Review.
If you were able to follow that dazzling chain of logic, you are now ready to embark down the Illuminati lit, Big Foot trodden, ancient alien crafted path of nutty movies about conspiracy theories, our theme for April. Grab your tin-foil hat and chem-trail screening mask, this is going to get dangerous!
Our first stop is The Number 23, a pseudo noir thriller starring some-times funny man Jim Carrey. This film explores a sadly real life numerology cult that believes the number 23 is somehow involved in every significant event, has theological implications, and is related to Cthulu…who I must take this opportunity to remind everyone is completely fictional, though quite a bad ass. Sorry, Lovecraft fans, not real. The movie was savaged by critics…EXACTLY 23 TIMES*! It seems to have been rehabilitated with age, so we check it out to see if this conspiracy chestnut is cursed or divine.
*Not at all a real fact.
The Number 23 (2007)
Jim Carrey plays Walter Sparrow, a humble animal control officer with a wife and child. Walter is dull as dishwater and utterly normal, until his wife stumbles upon a book called The Number 23, which she buys for her husband. Walter is mesmerized by the 23 enigma, and by the fact that the book seems to mirror many aspects of his own life. Obsessed to the point of neurosis, Walter begins to believe that the author of the text is actually himself, and that Walter Sparrow is a false identity the author created after committing a heinous crime. A crime, Walter fears, he may feel compelled to commit again.
The Number 23 turns heavily upon the central plot device that Jim Carrey is living two lives. He’s a mild mannered family man with a tendency of obsessive behavior, but he is also Detective Fingerling, a rogue cop/jazz musician who is calculating and violent. It’s a Hitchcock conceit dressed up with a little bit of conspiracy theory frippery to add a modern edginess to the undertaking. Carrey manages to make Walter Sparrow feel authentic, but his Fingerling character is a thin caricature of noir-film tropes. Dressed all in black and sporting numerous “bad boy” tattoos (which, shouldn’t mild as milk Walter Sparrow be the least bit curious as to why he’s covered in more ink than a Hell’s Angels rally?) Fingerling is supposed to be dark and cool, but comes off as just a creep trying very hard to look tough. The real heart of the story is poor Walter slowly loosing himself into a paranoid fantasy that offers him a chance to finally be a somebody. Unfortunately, that somebody is kind of a douche.
Despite the noir elements being the weaker part of the story, they do provide a nice visual aspect to the film. Walter’s reconstructions of his shadowy past are shot in low-key lighting, creating stark contrast of light and dark, but a flare is added that blurs the edges of the people and objects in the scenes. Its a neat visual trick that calls back the heavily shadowed film noir sensibility while also adding a dream-like and hallucinatory effect. The images are stark but not quite real. Meanwhile, Walter’s day-to-day reality is almost sepia toned, giving it a subtle nostalgic feel. Subject matter aside, I remember thinking that the movie was visually very well composited, and a second viewing a decade later confirms that gut feeling.
Comedy, Tragedy, and Farce
The Number 23 isn’t a great movie, but it does have some nice elements. It is visually interesting, and at its core there is a good story, featuring a solid dramatic performance by Jim Carrey. The film strays from this element and loses its focus, hoping perhaps to get more voltage out of what was (at the time) a very unexpectedly dark role for Carrey. Between the convoluted Fingerling story and the scary promotional material that tried to sell the “23 enigma” as a deadly serious concept, it goes off the rails (seriously, watch the special features section where a completely psychotic Carrey rattles off “evidence” of the spooky phenomena. Its conspiracy theory babble at its finest and most frighteningly ernest.) A numerology based thriller may have worked, a split personality noir may have worked, and I really think that a character study of a desperate man trying to find something exciting and remarkable about his drab life (at any cost) would really have worked, but all three strands become a tangled mess.