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Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Number 23

Who says the Academy Awards don’t mean anything? Even if you don’t win, the near-brush can be enough to revive a lackluster career and give it new life as long as your name isn’t Cuba Gooding, Jr. of Boat Trip infamy. Look instead at Virginia Madsen. Before Sideways, her most celebrated role was as the object of Candyman’s desire. From there, she spiraled downward into doing guest shots on a blur of episodic tv series and providing voices to superheroes on Saturday morning cartoon shows. Then she lucked out and found herself in that funny little movie about wine-tasting and earned herself an Oscar nomination. She didn’t win (Cate Blanchette snatched the statuette for her role as Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator), but three years later and Madsen is opening in two films this weekend, playing the tolerant, understanding, albeit frustrated and at wit’s end wives to both Billy Bob Thornton in The Astronaut Farmer and to Jim Carrey in The Number 23. Who knew she was a polygamist?

Now I know there are many among you who might think playing the “wife” in a movie is about as fulfilling as playing a piece of the furniture, but I can assure you that if you see
The Number 23 you won’t be thinking about Virginia Madsen as anything close to a piece of furniture. You may think of her as a ‘piece’ of something, but it definitely won’t be furniture. Yes, sweet smiling Virginia will have you raising your eyebrows as she glides seamlessly between a couple of roles in this convoluted story that explores both the conscious and subconscious mind of her increasingly disturbed and delusional husband Walter, played by Jim Carrey (Fun with Dick and Jane).

This is a story I can’t really tell you much about because it is one of those
fascinating puzzles that is like a cinematic Rubik’s Cube. The plot moves along in one direction, then shifts gears entirely, and moves back, then up, then right, then down and when you are completely confused by what is happening and what the ultimate focus of the many unfolding mini-dramas are, everything comes together in the last fifteen minutes in a walloping crescendo that is shocking and oh-so-cool in an M. Night Shyamaylan sort of way.

What begins as a simple story of a happily married couple, Walter and Agatha Sparrow, begins to unravel after Agatha seems drawn to a book on display in a used bookstore and she buys it for Walter as a birthday gift. The book, The Number 23, is a dog-eared volume from a private vanity publisher and tells the tale of a detective involved in a world of torture, rough sex, and murder. It also is driven by the pivotal revelation that all that is dark and evil in the world is tied to the number 23. This seemingly absurd conceit is
something Walter at first laughs off but, of course, once the idea is in his head it seems everywhere he goes and everything he does now seems to have some extraneous link to that very number. The more he tries to ignore the number the more it seems to leap out at him. Within days, he is obsessed, and the further he reads into the book the more he identifies with the detective, called Fingerling. He is convinced that somehow the author has written this book specifically about Walter and he becomes determined to hunt down the mystery author and find out who it is and why he has written such a personal account of his life. He also wants to know more than anything else what the secret of the number really means.

The film does an interesting job in portraying scenes from the book as
dreams that haunt Walter in the night. He sees himself in varying shades of brown and red as Fingerling and Agatha is there as well as Fingerling’s girlfriend and eventual murder victim, Fabrizia. Therein lays his biggest fear. The further into the story (and dreams) Walter goes, the more he realizes how disturbed Fingerling truly is. And if Fingerling is driven to do such dark and evil things as he does, then if Walter seems to be his alter-ego, does that mean, as Walter fears, that he is doomed to become the same man as Fingerling? He teeters on the brink of madness as he tries to break the curse of destiny and free himself from repeating Fingerling’s destructive path. The only problem is he doesn’t know how. He just knows it is all tied in to the key ~ 23.

So While Carrey’s running wild, finding 23s in everything, including a stray dog named Ned (Ned: N is the 14th letter of the alphabet, E the 5th, and D the 4th, so 14 + 5 + 4 = 23 and N.E.D. = Nasty Evil Dog), it is up to Agatha to keep her husband reigned in and functioning and also manage somehow to keep their teenage son Robin (Logan Lerman; Hoot) from having any storyline of his own. Frankly, I think if my parents named me ‘Robin Sparrow’ there’d be reason enough to go all serial killer on their @%%&%, if you get my meaning. But I digress.

So this is a great role for Virginia Madsen. On the one hand, she gets to be
her usual blonde, loving self. Then she gets to throw on a dark wig and play the sultry, slutty woman of mystery Fabrizia. She also gets to play Agatha as a woman in crisis, having a husband with squirrels in his attic and her without money for an exterminator. Add to the mix the never explained presence of the ominous Danny Huston (Children of Men) as Isaac French, the possibly too-close friend of Agatha’s who seems to always be skirting the shadows with only the glimmer of his pompadour glimmering in the dark, and you’ve got a mystery wrapped in a mess covered in a lot of hooey. For most of the movie you’ll be wondering like Walter if his wife isn’t throwing parties for two (three if you count the pompadour as a single) when he is at work. Just what, if anything, are these two up to, and who is the hairdresser on this picture?

Actually, I quite liked
The Number 23 and I am not a fan of Jim Carrey and never have been. This is the first time I have felt he has given a truly adult performance that also didn’t feel like he was performing. He has finally given up slipping in his own persona and an occasional mugging for the camera in favor of letting the character drive what comes across on the screen. As a result, he becomes much more sympathetic and believable as a working-class guy who just happens to have slipped into something horrible without wanting to. It’s clear that picking up that book was as big a mistake for Walter as eating a certain apple turned out being for Adam. It’s ironic that in both instances it was the women who loved them that gave them the dooming items.

The Number 23 will not be everyone’s cup of tea. It is a film that requires a little used muscle people these days don’t usually stretch too often at the movies ~ a brain. If you expect to be spoon-fed a direct story with a predictable plot from A to B to C then stick with Norbit and have a few laughs or even see Ghost Rider if you want a “scary” (eyes rolling) movie; but if you are looking for a serious and multi-layered examination of the mental degeneration of a man and a family then this is a terrific example of the inner workings of obsessive compulsive disorder on steroids. It’s definitely different than what’s the usual fare, but it’s a fascinating trip.

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