As an aficionado of the “23 Enigma,” I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve never actually seen the 2007 movie The Number 23. I’m not sure why I’ve avoided it, exactly. I mean, it was sort of panned when it was released, and I’ve managed to put the fact that it was directed by Joel Schumacher out of my mind until I finally spun the DVD last night (and thus, couldn’t back out of it).
But I’ve now indeed seen it…and while I can’t say it is an especially great movie, it is certainly chock full of esotericism and general weirdness. I might even classify it as a “cursed” film, though I need a little more follow-up and evidence to officially make that claim. So let’s take a look at The Number 23, released ten years ago on my birthday, February 23.
I’m going to put it as plainly as I can: I think this is the movie that broke Jim Carrey. I think The Number 23 stood at the crossroads of a huge career and a continuing slide towards Chapel Perilous for the actor. While he had done many films which had aspects of this one—indeed, I’ve written an entire Carrey filmography pointing out the repeated archetypal imagery within his movies—this was the one that most concretely esoteric.
In a sense, The Number 23 “flirted” with the 23 Enigma in a similar fashion as The Exorcist flirted with demonic possession—and that’s powerful stuff, regardless if the director of Batman and Robin is helming it.
I. THE FILM
Spoilers to follow.
The film opens with Carrey as “normal guy” Walter Sparrow, an animal control worker. He goes after an errant dog (check my Carrey filmography to see how many times dogs feature in his films), gets bit, and ends up receiving a strange book from his wife at the “Clever Foreshadowing Bookstore” (I kid, I kid).
Now Sparrow is obsessed with the book—called (of course) The Number 23. And the way it looks in the movie, with its spare, red cover reminded me of Aleister Crowley’s The Book of the Law (or, Jung’s The Red Book, take your pick). The Number 23 is written by a Topsy Kretts (and the fact that I didn’t realize the pun in that name until it was revealed in the film is pretty sad to admit), who claims to be a Mr. “Fingerling,” and is admitting to murder.
Sparrow’s life starts to be intercut by these strange, smoke-filled, Sin City type noir interludes with detective and saxophone player Fingerling, who has passionate sex with a mysterious Italian brunette that looks just like Walter’s wife. Fingerling is called to investigate a woman called “The Suicide Blonde” who is obsessed with the number 23 and associated coincidences, and later actually commits suicide.
So far, don’t expect a lot of the plot to make any sense at all. I don’t mean in a surrealist David Lynch style—and the way Lynch is ripped off in this movie is shocking (well, it’s Schumacher, so not that shocking)—but rather a sloppy manner trying to seem deep. Lord only knows how this movie could have turned out in more competent hands.
But though Carrey was nominated for a Razzie for his performance here, I don’t really see the movie’s failings as his fault. The actor excels best in movies that allow him to have a range of characterization other than just bug-fuck crazy, and we certainly see that in this flick. As I said, Sparrow is a regular sort of likable guy, who would have fit right in with The Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Truman Show, or what have you.
His “alter ego” Fingerling, on the other hand, is kind of weird—a stone-faced, grim, even “Gothic” figure minus the charm of “normal” Carrey or any of the humor of his other characters. It’s like seeing Robin Williams in One Hour Photo. It’s sort of creepy and disturbing, and weirdly makes you feel bad for Carrey.
As the plot—such as it is—proceeds, we see Sparrow and his son fall down the 23 Enigma rabbit hole, the obligatory scene with a psychologist-type explaining the obsession with the number, and so on. It rarely feels intellectually or esoterically satisfying; instead, giving one the impression that the Enigma was just a gimmick to sell the film as just another horror/thriller…as if the phenomenon was a Oujia Board or a certain colorful urban legend.
By the time we get to the ending, the plot holes really begin to show, and the resolution—featuring an unbelievable Laura Palmer rip-off “Laura Tollins” and Mark Pellegrino from Mulholland Drive, just to really ape Lynch good—has little emotional impact.
Esoterically, this is a fucked-up movie nonetheless.
II. THE WEIRDNESS
First of all, the movie makers fucked with the 23 Enigma—full stop.
Then, they incorporate a guy originally called “The Old Man” and later is revealed to be one “Dr. Sirius Leary” (!!!!!!!!!) who I think is supposed to represent Robert Anton Wilson.
This is the dude, played by Bud Cort, who also became obsessed with the 23 Enigma and published/transcribed “Fingerling’s” story regarding it. So Leary, in a way, “wrote the book” on 23, thus perpetuating the “curse.” Then he later dies in the film—Wilson passed away one month before the release of The Number 23.
And so you have Leary as in “Timothy Leary,” associate of Wilson, and “Sirius” which was the star Wilson claimed to have possibly channeled information from. (Though to be fair, Dr. Leary also had a connection to Sirius.) Sirius is also “The Dog Star,” which leads back to the dog who functions like the “white rabbit” in the movie’s narrative.
And the guy just sort of physically looks like Wilson a little. So I’m pretty sure the screenwriter knew something about the Enigma and its origins.
Speaking of the screenwriter, Fernley Phillips—The Number 23 was his first screen credit and, at least according to the IMDB, he apparently never had another such credit again except for the “teens getting in trouble on the Internet” thriller U Want Me To Kill Him? in 2013 (shades of Karl Koch, subject of the original “23” movie that Wilson cameoed in).
So here you had a guy who had this “hot” screenplay, and was slated for all this Hollywood glory and future projects. And then The Number 23 comes out, and boom! it’s gone. And there’s hardly any trace of the man on the Internet outside of The Number 23.
But there is a far, far weirder thing about The Number 23 that, in retrospect, gives the flick an extra-eerie aura…
III. THE SUICIDE
On September 28, 2015, Carrey’s ex-girlfriend Cathriona White was found dead of a drug overdose—ruled a suicide. As in The Number 23, we have the death of a brunette—a former lover—hanging over Carrey’s head…
And as is prominent in The Number 23, we also have a suicidal woman…
Simply put: plot-points from his film became his reality.
Carrey would later be sued by both White’s mother and estranged husband, the two making a number of allegations that the actor denies. But regardless of what happens in these lawsuits, there has been an extra dose of grief and tragedy shadowing over Carrey’s life because of this incident…and the movies in his filmography start to become a lot more spotty in number after White’s death.
In fact, Carrey’s overall trend after The Number 23 seems to be less films on a regular basis.
IV. THE OBSESSION
It should be here that I add, Carrey has admitted to have been obsessed with the number 23 even before he received the script for the movie:
A friend of mine said one day, maybe 15 years ago, I see 23 everywhere. When I said ‘what?’ he started pointing it out to me – license plates added up to it, people’s birthdays and significant dates in history all added up to 23.
The Hiroshima bomb was dropped at 8.15. So I immediately started seeing it too. It was like a disease that caught on in me and I became obsessed with it. Like there’s 46 chromosomes in each human body – 23 from each parent and so on…
It finished up with me talking to a friend who was a minister and he had a book in his pocket that he pulled out and handed to me; it was the 23rd Psalm. That’s ‘The Lord Is My Shepherd and I shall not want’. It’s all about living without fear and knowing that you’re taken care of. So that became my motto and I go to it all the time.
Indeed, he apparently created a production company called “JC23”
V. “THIS IS YOUR LIFE, JIM CARREY”
There is one last creepy aspect of The Number 23 I want to address before I wrap up. The movie also seems to have a strange “This Is Your Life” (or, “This Is Your Filmography”) aspect to it, in the sense of “recapping” and resonating many of his past (and even future) film roles:
- The cover of Fingerling At The Zoo is reminiscent of Mr. Popper’s Penguins (which Carrey would film several years later).
- The “dual role” of Walter/Fingerling resonates many of his other film roles, including Schumacher’s Batman Forever. In addition, Walter’s son is named “Robin,” and Walter ends up in a head bandage just like Edward Nygma (Topsy Kretts?) at the end of that movie.
- Andy Kaufman associate Bob Zmuda cameos in The Number 23; Carrey of course played Kaufman in 1999’s Man In The Moon (with Paul Giamatti as Zmuda).
- Walter writes all over his face just as he did in the movie Liar, Liar.
- As mentioned before, dogs especially feature in a number of key Carrey films, such as The Mask, The Grinch, and Ace Ventura.
- Carrey has played several characters with memory loss of various stripes, as in Eternal Sunshine and The Majestic.
So the movie goes through all those moments, like some sort of review…and then possibly even incorporates a key event in his life that didn’t even happen yet (White’s suicide).
VI. IN CONCLUSION
Again, the question is asked: was/is the 23 Enigma just a case of “seeing” something everywhere simply because that was where one’s attention decided to go? Or is there something more uncanny going on here, something that might include the power of numbers, old and inexplicable “curses,” and more?
At any rate, I do have to be appreciative to The Number 23 for the following reason: had the movie not come out, I’m not sure I would have been turned on to Robert Anton Wilson!
While I had heard of Wilson before, I never had any interest in sitting down and reading his work until I was lent a copy of Fortean Times in which an article of his about the 23 Enigma was reprinted—an article that was most likely published in connection with the film coming out around the same time. My husband, who I met two days after The Number 23 hit theaters on February 23 (my birthday), is the one who gave me the magazine; yesterday I had been playing around with the idea of finally watching The Number 23, but only decided to do so when I turned around and saw that my husband was on the 23rd page of the book he was reading.
And so it goes.