Jim Carrey, Virginia Madsen, and Logan Lerman star in a film written by Fernley Phillips and directed by Joel Schumacher.

During the first scenes of a movie, do you ever wonder what universe it might inhabit? What laws are in effect? Some movies seem rooted in the real, some the fantastic; most display a blend of filmmaker obsessions and form demands we gradually figure out-from slapstick modes to the rainy nights of noir. With Joel Schumacher, an unevenly good director who lives in Carpinteria today, I often just feel disconnected.

It’s not a visual problem. Most of The Number 23 is gorgeous. The story of an apparently happy dogcatcher (Jim Carrey) who becomes buggy on numerology while reading a book his wife finds, is engaging, full of tricky shots, angles, and other nice surprises. But it ultimately feels faked because Schumacher doesn’t care much for internal sense.

Who believes in this little nameless community that mixes seedy hotels with a place called Steps of Heaven? Suburb or allegory, where are we? How are we supposed to take Carrey, who sounds dopey as a macho jerk and other times beams as the greatest dad alive? Why does it take him days to pore through a slim volume that he is supposedly fixated on? It feels like script ideas are pulling the movie’s reality like bad gravity against a tide of sense. And it’s not just because the film blends fantasy, obsession, and realism. Baz Luhrmann films are even more artificial, but they don’t feel like 23, a closed set floating in a void.

Schumacher began his career as a window-dresser (but so did Andy Warhol), and clearly likes studio sets. But he’s much better outdoors in the sunshine. Contrast The Lost Boys and Phone Booth (both terrific) with bloviated fantasias like Batman and Robin or Phantom of the Opera. His artifice feels more like artificial ingredients.

In the best cases, films about obsession can often be profound. Vertigo and Repulsion mixed visual grandeur with claustrophobic thinking. This film, with its hollow tacked-on ending, and despite an appearance of our own Rudi Willrich as a doctor, desperately needed its director to go play outside in the real world more often.


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