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Flee the melodramatic ‘Number 23’

Jim Carrey is wasted in this pretentious, overwrought thriller. By John Hartl

Jim Carrey has taken a lot of interesting chances in his career, even managing to take his fan club with him as he abandoned Ace Ventura’s slapstick antics to explore material as challenging as “Man on the Moon,” “The Truman Show” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”

But it’s difficult to imagine what even his most loyal fans will be able to get out of “The Number 23,” a hopelessly pretentious and overwrought drama about a disturbed family man and dogcatcher named Walter Sparrow. When Sparrow becomes obsessed with an obscure numerology book, he decides that it’s based on his own life — and the possibility of a vicious murder in his past — and he starts to self-destruct in spectacular fashion.

The book also plays with the mystical significance of the number 23. Sparrow begins to see “23” everywhere, from Biblical quotations to birth dates to tombstones to street addresses. Carrey also plays another character, Fingerling, who figures prominently in Sparrow’s unraveling.

Ed Lauter has a jarring cameo as a priest, and there are tiny roles for Mark Pellegrino and Lynn Collins. Danny Huston turns up as a sinister pal who appears to be spending too much time with Sparrow’s patient wife, Agatha (Virginia Madsen, who also plays the seductive Fabrizia in Sparrow’s fantasy life). Logan Lerman is their impressionable teenage son, Robin, who becomes nearly as obsessed with “23” as his father.

That description should tell you just enough about “The Number 23” to suggest what the “surprise” ending will be. If that’s a spoiler, well, so is the heavy dose of exposition that dominates the opening reel.

Despite her Oscar nomination for “Sideways” a couple of years ago, Madsen can’t catch a break. She also played thankless wife roles in “Firewall” and “The Astronaut Farmer” (also opening this weekend). And though she does her professional best to make something of these parts, there’s only so much she can do with a sketchy script.

As for Carrey, you can’t help but feel for him, having to deliver portentous lines like “Ned isn’t just a dog, he’s the guardian of the dead.” Stylized childhood episodes are intended to establish motivations for his character, who apparently was neglected by a cold-fish accountant father (Paul Butcher capably plays Sparrow as a child), but they mostly overstate the obvious. 

Much of the film is mired in melodramatic flourishes, and Carrey is trapped into giving a one-note performance that lacks (intentional) humor. The more serious the movie becomes, the more it tries to create a potent mixture of fantasy and flashbacks, the more risible it is. The film-noir touches, with Collins playing someone nicknamed the “suicide blonde,” are pure camp.

“The Number 23” may last 93 minutes, but first-time British screenwriter Fernley Phillips exhausts most of his ideas long before 23 minutes have passed. The rest is tedium, directed without an ounce of conviction by Carrey’s “Batman Forever” director, Joel Schumacher.