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The Big Movie: 'The Number 23' (R)

Weekend!Movies: This director and star combo doesn't add up
by: ©2007 CHRISTINE LOSS, Agatha Sparrow (Virginia Madsen) gives hubby Walter (Jim Carrey) a book that promises to change their lives, in a movie that probably won’t change yours.

Director Joel Schumacher has made some good movies ('Cousins,' 'Phone Booth') but has mostly directed horrific misfires.

One look at 'The Phantom of the Opera' or the jaw-droppingly abysmal 'Batman and Robin' and it becomes clear that the more money he has to work with, the worse the film.

In 'The Number 23' Schumacher has a middlingly large budget, so he's made a middlingly bad movie.

His star is Jim Carrey, who's proven that with a good director like Michel Gondry, who directed him in 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,' he can turn in a performance that isn't all mugging and self-absorption.

But try as Schumacher might to make an experimental thriller with fantastic/supernatural overtones, he is no Gondry, and Carrey has repeatedly proven that he's only as good as the director in front of him.

Here he plays Walter Sparrow, a pleasant enough fellow who works as an animal control officer.

His wife, Agatha (Virginia Madsen), gives him a book for his birthday called 'The Number 23,' and it eerily echoes aspects of Walter's own life. It also introduces him to the maddening idea that the number 23 is everywhere - his birthday, the letters in his name, the date that the Hindenberg exploded … you get the picture.

There have been a number of films and books illustrating a man's descent into madness.

David Cronenberg staked out this territory with 'The Fly,' 'Dead Ringers' and 'Videodrome,' while Darren Aronofsky's 'Pi' turned mathematics into a crackerjack suspense thriller.

It's obvious that Schumacher wants to achieve the same sort of thing here, but the film's fatal flaw is its story.

There's cleverness, but it's the sort of cleverness that one sees in a film school assignment, all concept and no execution.

Once we get past the central gimmick - man finds book, movie shifts between his real life and the book's characters, man starts to go crazy - there has to be something more to keep us occupied. Unfortunately, as the mystery unravels, so does all pretense of logic.

One of the biggest questions is this: How far will you go to support your spouse? Agatha never flinches in the face of Walter's increasing paranoia, helping him mail 23 empty boxes to the book's author to smoke him out, breaking into abandoned buildings and snatching a body.

Considering how many of us have to nag at our spouses to take out the trash, Agatha deserves an award for her dedication.

The biggest problem with 'The Number 23' is that it wants badly for you to think that it's a smart movie, but with every twist of the plot it gets stupider and stupider. It may have a certain appeal for fans of sudoku puzzles, but for the rest of us, sitting through this film is harder than Chinese algebra.

- Dawn Taylor

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