01 March 2007

ENDLESS NUMBERED DAZE

The lamest pull-quote I've ever seen is on the back of the DVD case for Battlefield Earth, and it goes something like this (I'm paraphrasing from memory): "Fantastic scene transitions!"

In addition to being lame, it is inaccurate; the scene transitions in Battlefield Earth are in fact unusually bad. No-one can say the same of The Number 23, which is terrible for the most part, but it really does have fantastic scene transitions, using CGI to surprisingly good effect as the camera swoops in and out of photographs, through fences and windows, back and forth across time. It works, even in the eyes of such a grizzled old CGI enemy as I; I might go so far as to say that the scene transitions represent more directorial brilliance on Joel "Hack McHackerton" Schumacher's part than anything in his last film, 2004's The Phantom of the Opera.

And in the spirit of generosity, I'd be lying if I didn't admit that the plot was at least a tiny bit interesting in the broadest possible strokes before it got as far as scripting, and long before it was ever put on a set and exposed to celluloid: Walter Sparrow (Jim Carrey) is a bored middle-aged man who acquires a book titled The Number 23 through a series of coincidences contrivances coincidences, and upon reading it discovers that it tells his exact life story, except it's not his exact life story but just a rumination on the dark significance of the number 23, which is suddenly showing up in Walter's life in all sorts of tricksy places, and now it is his exact life story...or is it?

At its heart (ignore briefly that it doesn't have one), this is a film about how a sufficiently bored person can make any number equal any other number with enough adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing, transposition, and outright fraudulence. In my youth, I recall a math flash-card game called "24": each card had four numbers and you had to figure out which combination made them equal 24. The Number 23 is just like that game, except I don't remember having quite the same feeling of paranoia when I was 11.

It's not enough that Schumacher and screenwriter Fernley Phillips want to insult us with a sub-kabbalistic reading of the commutative property, they decide that we won't feel perfectly insulted if they ground it in an obnoxious murder mystery where Walter becomes convinced that the secret to a 15-year-old crime can be found in the pages of the book. He runs around pointing at things and ranting, while his wife Agatha (Virginia Madsen, officially hemorrhaging the last of my post-Sideways respect) and his son Robin (Logan Lerman) look on with various degrees of doubt and horror and boredom. I want to quickly point something out that I think the author must have failed to notice, that the son's full name is Robin Sparrow. If he did not fail to notice, then he is an extremely wicked person.

So much cascading hatred for the audience runs through the flickering images of this film! Example: The Number 23 The Book is written by Topsy Kretts, and not only is this an immorally unclever pun, it is one that no character in the film notices until roughly the half-way point. Example: the opening ten minutes are taken up with a Walter voicever musing about how arbitrary and coincidental his life has been, and the rest of the film is about fate, and how nothing is a coincidence. Example: this is a film with a voiceover.

There is no bigger example, however, than the end. The bitter end, and that phrase was ne'er so well-chosen as here. The film is a contrived and laughable study in paranoia for so long, and it's completely mindless; then the twist inevitably comes along and the "explanation," which I will not give away, because it's pretty surreal to watch it yourself and be amazed that someone actually tried to pull this one over on the American film-going audience, yes the "explanation" which is the most insulting and contrived thing you could possibly imagine.

There is a concept that goes roughly: the plausible impossible is more believable than the implausible possible. In other words, something that cannot conceivably happen but makes "sense" is better than something that could physically happen but is monumentally unlikely. The opening of The Number 23 is implausibly possible, requiring as it does that the characters are blinkered idiots and very lucky. The ending, however, now that is implausible and impossible, and it turns a stupid thriller into a full-on train wreck. It delights me, but I have many years' experience watching bad movies. Tread carefully and know your limits before purchasing a ticket.

It is not possible to act well given sufficiently awful dialogue, and I will not therefore criticise Carrey, Madsen or Danny Huston, who is popping up everywhere these days. What I will do is praise the performance of Ned the dog (Ned = 23, tiresomely), the pit bull who gets things started by biting Walter on the arm (Walter is an animal control agent, for no damn reason). Thereafter, the degree to which Walter's paranoia is becoming dangerous is signified by the violence he wants to wreak upon the dog, violence which is clearly evil because in this world, stray animals cannot get rabies and hence cannot infect people (okay, to be fair, that's not where they were going; but the idea that the dog needs to be caught and tested is absolutely ignored). For his part, Ned sits around at various portentous moments and looks thoughtful, observing Walter's behavior without comment much like a doggy version of the Watcher in KieĊ›lowski's Dekalog, only with gibbering inanity replacing moral investigation. Snark aside, the dog is the best part of the movie. As I reread that sentence, I wish to cry.

As much as I'd like to say that The Number 23 thrives on calling the audience stupid to our faces and then pissing all over our flowerbeds, I don't think it's really vicious. I think that the filmmakers are just that dumb. For God's sake, the screenwriter is named Fernley. These are people to be pitied, not censured, because I suspect they really thought this insensate string of ridiculous happenings had the potential to be a great thriller, and that the twists and turns are awesome, not contemptible. Poor lost souls.

Still: better than Batman & Robin.

2/10

2 comments:

Rebecca said...

Well, since you liked "24" better: The Number 24

moonette said...

My husband is starting to watch this movie right now, so I looked up reviews on my laptop while it's playing. I have to tell you, I've interrupted him several times to read excerpts from your review, and you've had us both laughing. Great review. Thanks.