"The Number 23" | And you thought 13 was unlucky

OK, I'm starting to get worried about Virginia Madsen. There she was, so radiantly sane and lovely in "Sideways" not so very long ago, and now here she is, this weekend, showing up at the multiplexes in two different movies married to two more-or-less insane men, each time with a teenage son who has a bizarre name.

In "The Astronaut Farmer" (review on page 21), she's Audie, married to astronaut-wannabe Billy Bob Thornton with a kid named Shepard Farmer. Now, in "The Number 23," she's Agatha (note the alliteration), the spouse of addled conspiracy nut Jim Carrey, and their offspring is Robin Sparrow. What gives, Virginia? What's going on, Virginia's Agent? And what, I shudder to ask, is next? Steve Buscemi? A kid named Oscar Nomination?

I mention all this mostly to avoid going into the mess that is "The Number 23," but it can't be helped: Such is my lot, as it is apparently Virginia's lot to focus her loving wifely gaze on someone who's losing his grip. (For the record, she does it very well, but would somebody please give her a better role?)

This incoherent psychological thriller, directed by Joel Schumacher and written by first-timer Fernley Phillips, is the tale of a regular guy named Walter Sparrow (Carrey) who becomes obsessed with a novel that appears to be telling the dark story of his own past.

Along the way, the author's obsession with the number 23 becomes Walter's, and we're treated to a lot of examples of numbers that add up to 23, which means a lot of scenes in which people say things like, "What's 14 plus 9? 23!" and look haunted.

The novel, a seemingly random birthday gift to Walter from Agatha, comes to life as a film-within-the-film, staged by Schumacher as a blood-drenched noir complete with corpses, femmes fatale, a weirdly bleached-out room in which everything seems draped in white sheets (what, is it laundry day?), an evil dog named Ned and a fleabag hotel with ominous crimson stains on the wall. All of this is intercut with numerous scenes in the Sparrows' very dark Craftsman home, in which Walter acts bizarre and Agatha and Robin stare at him with familial concern, backlit nicely against their home's blood-red walls. Hmmm.

This territory is certainly a stretch for Carrey; however, in this case, it probably would have been better to atrophy. Disguised in Tom Cruise bangs and perpetual stubble, he throws himself into the role and gives an earnest, hardworking performance; he's not at all bad, but the baggage he carries from his comic performances is all too apparent. Many of Walter's lines come off as funny, but you sense they weren't intended that way.

"The Number 23" soon dissolves into incoherence, with seemingly random scenes (Agatha in some weird red cave! Ned the dog turning up everywhere! The Steps to Heaven!) that just add up to confusion. Schumacher directs with his usual heavy hand, letting the images fly by as ponderous music plays. At one point, Carrey says, "I'll be honest. I didn't get it." At last, something on which we can agree.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Movie review 1.5 stars

Showtimes and trailer

"The Number 23," with Jim Carrey, Virginia Madsen, Logan Lerman, Danny Huston. Directed by Joel Schumacher, from a screenplay by Fernley Phillips. 95 minutes. Rated R for violence, disturbing images, sexuality and language. Several theaters.