Any student of music, and especially anyone who’s studied their John Cage, knows that if you listen hard enough, you can always discover patterns. Producer Brian Eno once described recording a walk in the park, and taking a 3 min.-30 second segment of it and listening repeatedly: patterns emerged, the rhythms of footsteps, the on-off burble of chatter, the bird that chirped every 22 seconds.

This is not surprising: the human ear is trained to find order in chaos, to take random input and find ways to make sense of it. In music, this is a beautiful and fascinating game to play. But when our pattern-recognizing ability goes into overdrive in our daily life, there’s another word for it: paranoia. The paranoiac has a fantastic ability to find connections and relationships between disparate input; unfortunately, these connections are all evil, menacing ones, part of a vast, unseen conspiracy out to get him.

Paranoia may not be a fun mental state to go through, but it’s sure inspired some great films, such as “Memento,” “The Game,” or “Jacob’s Ladder.” “The Number 23,” a new thriller starring Jim Carrey, seeks to join this legion of mind-warp movies, but comes up short.

The Number 23
Director Joel Schumacher
Run Time 99 minutes
Language English
Opens Opens Nov. 23, 2007

Anyone familiar with the writings of Aleister Crowley or Robert Anton Wilson will know that the number 23 has long fascinated occultists and conspiracy theorists, two occupations that seem to breed paranoia. The number is seen (through sacred numerology) as a symbol of synchronicity, the mark of the beast (2 divided by 3 gets you .666), or a coded symbol of the secret society known as the Illuminati. It’s this last connection that probably inspired the filmmakers of “The Number 23,” given that “The Da Vinci Code” has proven that conspiracy sells.

Carrey plays a guy named Walter Sparrow who takes a wrong turn into a bookstore one day, where he finds a book that will turn his life upside down. Called “The Number 23,” the book starts with the line “Imagine me as you,” and Sparrow does exactly that. Reading the noirish detective story, he starts to think the book is about him. It includes what seem to be intimate details of his childhood, and soon he’s imagining himself as the protagonist, a detective called Fingerling. Unfortunately, the novel’s denouement involves the murder of the femme fatale Fingerling loves. Needless to say, Sparrow’s real-life wife Agatha (Virginia Madsen) becomes concerned.

The murder in the novel is due to a “curse,” an obsession with the number 23 that drives its victims insane. Soon Sparrow is showing the symptoms, seeing the number everywhere, and spewing paranoid rants about how the earth spins on a 23 degree axis, or how there are 23 chapters in the Book of Revelations in the bible, or how blood takes 23 seconds to circulate through the human body.

Director Joel Schumacher builds the delirium nicely, using sharp editing and an intense performance from Carrey to ratchet up the tension. And this being Schumacher — the guy who gave us “8mm” and “Batman Forever” — there’s a veneer of edgy S&M style glossed onto the noirish scenes here. When someone gets tied to a bed for some rough sex, there’s a certain air of transgression, but David Lynch this is not. “Lost Highway,” for one, presented the viewer with a truly frightening and disturbingly incomprehensible enigma. “The Number 23” loses steam as it plows toward its conclusion, and its “surprise” ending is rather ho-hum, robbing its carefully constructed 23-enigma of any mystery or threat.

A bigger problem is that as enigmas go, 23 is not a very impressive one. People claim to see the number everywhere, but that usually involves juggling the numbers. For example, 23-obsessives will tell you that the Oklahoma City bombing was a 23, by adding the month and day (4+19) together, but not the year. Then they’ll say, look at the date the Titanic sunk, 4/15/1912, which this time is computed as 4+1+5+1+9+1+2. Presumably, the logical leap here is not a problem for the sort of person who thinks the Illuminati are communicating with their masters from the star system Sirius. Like stated above, if you look for a pattern, you will find it; human intent should not be mistaken for mystical messages.

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