The Number 23 starts off with mild-mannered Walter Sparrow (Jim Carrey) receiving a mysterious novel from his wife Agatha (Virginia Madsen). Suddenly his idyllic life is thrust into an inferno of psychological torture as he becomes more and more obsessed with the story about a detective named Fingerling. Cutting between scenes with the real Walter and the fictitious Fingerling (also Carrey) they both delve deep into obsession over what the significance of the number means to them. Now had the The Number 23 just stuck with that idea--how 23 somehow permeates our very existence--then it may have worked better. Instead the action veers off into Walter’s past as he starts to unlock suppressed memories and unearths an unsolved murder mystery which doesn’t really have anything to do with the number. And you feel ripped off. Is it a curse (divide 2 by 3 and you get .666)? Does it predict the future (the Mayans believed the world will end Dec. 23 2012 [20+1+2=23])? Or is it just one of those numbers that haunts you the more you try to figure it out? We want to know more dammit (that last sentence is 23 characters without spaces by the way). Yes Carrey plays it straight and this may be his darkest turn yet but it’s not like he’s never done it before. Carrey is a consummate actor folks. He’s pretty good at doing whatever he sets his mind to. He played the straight guy in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind just fine allowing Kate Winslet to be kooky instead. And as Walter he resolutely indulges in murderous obsessive-compulsive behavior while including a few moments of his unique comic stylings. Meanwhile Madsen is playing her second loving and supportive wife of this week (she plays one in The Astronaut Farmer as well) but that’s fine. She does it effectively. But what she also gets to do in Number 23 is portray a saucy sex-craved alter ego from the novel who likes to have dangerous and kinky sex with Fingerling—and she plays it to the hilt. Give this woman more juicy parts! Director Joel Schumacher knows how to make a Hollywood movie--that’s why the studios love him. Sure he’s made more than his fair share of stinkers (Batman Forever AND Batman & Robin) but he has also made some finely tuned thrillers such as Phone Booth and A Time to Kill. Number 23 sort of falls somewhere in between. Schumacher takes some creative license when we are in Fingerling’s world which makes for some arresting and stylistic visuals but he and newbie screenwriter Fernley Phillips really stretch things to make the whole murder-mystery subplot work within the context of the premise opting for cheap thrills and a standardized ending. Honestly it nearly ruins the whole movie—until you drive home and notice the number 23 EVERYWHERE! Number 23 is still gonna stick with you.
A truck carrying hazardous materials accidentally drops one of its containers into a small lake contaminating it and its delicate ecosystem. Trouble arises when the wacky town entomologist feeds his collection of exotic spiders contaminated crickets which act as a sort of spider "steroid." The result is a horde of giant hairy spiders that prey on the town's unsuspecting inhabitants. Sheriff Sam Parker (Kari Wuhrer) doesn't believe her son Mike (Scott Terra) when he tries to warn her about what's going on but blames his "media-induced paranoid delusional nightmare" on too much boob-tube watching. Then when mining engineer Chris McCormick's (David Arquette) aunt gets spun--literally--into one of the spider's webs he enlists the help of Sheriff Parker and paranoid radio announcer Harlan Griffin (Doug E. Doug) to fight off the eight-legged freaks. Armed only with rakes ski poles and chainsaws the townspeople fight off the spiders in a losing battle before Chris comes up with a master plan that will blow the arachnids to smithereens.
Prankster Arquette (See Spot Run) tones down his funnyman routine in Eight Legged Freaks and takes on the role of the humble hero. It's refreshing to see Arquette playing a more subdued character with less of a slapstick edge although I half expected him to start yelling at people to "dial straight down the center." As the sheriff Wuhrer (Berserker) plays her dual role well as a headstrong single mother of two and the town leader. Sure she looks a little too hot to be a chief law enforcement officer but maybe some sheriffs really do look like that in small-town America. While the laughs may not have been coming from Arquette there were enough to be had thanks to Doug whose most memorable role to date has to be Sanka Coffie from the 1993 comedy Cool Runnings. His radio announcer in this film believes the government is conspiratorial and that the spiders are the alien invasion he has been warning people about for decades. Doug delivers some of the movie's funniest lines.
New Zealander Ellory Elkayem (Larger Than Life) wrote and directed Eight Legged Freaks a sort of homage to mid-1950s B-movie sci-fi thrillers like Tarantula or Earth vs. the Spider. But while these cult films were funny merely by accident--Tarantula director Jack Arnold probably wasn't being intentionally campy--Eight Legged Freaks at times seems to try too hard. Packing in one joke after another takes away from the spiders' scariness making them seem more like a practical joke than a potentially annihilating threat. The special effects are extremely slick however and the spiders are well done with techniques approaching those in the 1997 sci-fi actioner Starship Troopers (but none of the gigantic CGI spiders are as scary as the real-life tarantulas caged up in terrariums at the start of the movie). Although at 99 minutes the film moves quickly the final scene in which the townspeople are being chased through a labyrinth of mining tunnels drags on a bit too long.
Peter Appleton (Jim Carrey) has it made. His screenwriting career is on the rise his first movie's just been made and he's got a cute girl. Life is good--until the House Un-American Activities Committee mistakenly fingers him as a Communist and he quickly falls from the A-list to the blacklist. Getting dumped by both his studio and his girl is nothing a little drinking can't remedy but after drowning his sorrows he nearly drowns himself when he decides to drive drunk and his car veers into the river knocking him unconscious. When Peter comes to he can't remember who he is or where he came from so he's taken in by the kindly people of Lawson a burg stuck in time and still mourning the loss of many of its sons in World War II. They mistake him for Luke Trimble one of their long-lost boys who went MIA in World War II and are overjoyed at his return. Luke's father Harry (Martin Landau) whose zest for life had dwindled so much that he let his beloved movie house The Majestic fall to ruin but with "Luke's" return he plans to reopen it. Celebrations abound. Peter-as-Luke even returns to his relationship with fiancée Adele (Laurie Holden). Meanwhile Peter may have forgotten who he was but the Feds haven't and they're on his tail.
When Carrey's given the right material like he was with The Truman Show he can exhibit moments of greatness. The Majestic doesn't give Carrey the leeway to show his quirky sensibilities demanding that he play it straight throughout the movie (there are a few--too few--glances at humor that Carrey doesn't play up). To bring off the kind of schmaltz this movie oozes Carrey had to bring something of an edge to his character. Instead Peter is neither likable nor unlikable coming off as a bland confused schmo until the climactic end which after two hours of his weak personality is wholly unbelievable. Landau is unexciting as a caricature of the sad sentimental old man without hope--you want to sympathize but there's something faintly chilly about him. Holden's liberated-woman lawyer might have played better in a contemporary movie; she looks and acts too much like a modern-day actress trying to portray a woman of the '50s.
Was this some kind of vanity project dreamed up by a director too taken with his own greatness and past success? Was Frank Darabont envisioning an It's a Wonderful Life for the next generation? (Psst…it's likely the majority of the modern moviegoing public doesn't know who Frank Capra is and could care less especially when the movie is as slow and as completely unbelievable as this one.) Apparently Darabont's in love with his own direction because hardly a moment goes by without some lingering reaction shot. Darabont took an intriguing story about amnesia and mistaken identity and slathered it with sap. Old-fashioned period stories can be lots of fun but it's imperative they be able to keep a present-day audience's interest by including a bit of modern wit and pace. Unfortunately this sticks to the straight-and-narrow. Nobody's going to buy the two-dimensional main characters the shiny happy townspeople or especially the schlocky my-country-'tis-of-thee finale. In its favor The Majestic's ultimate message is a nice one. The movie does have its heartfelt moments and its '50s feel is authentic if a little polished.