Walter Sparrow (Jim Carrey) is a dogcatcher with nothing doing, at least not until he gets a used book for his birthday. The Number 23: A Novel of Obsessions turns out to be the gift that keeps on giving.
Number-hunting can seem innocent enough, like the solving of a puzzle, but it can belie something far more serious-something like numerology or the occult use of numbers. Yet, The Number 23 (rated R for violence, disturbing images, sexuality, and language) doesn't outright admit to any occultism. What it does admit to, though, is that numerology presents a puzzle that, in the end, isn't worth solving.
The book's narrator, Fingerling, shares quite a few plot points with Sparrow's own life, including the fact that Sparrow, like Fingerling, finds the number 23 wherever he looks, from his own birthday (February 3) to his age written backwards (32, you guessed it!).
At this point, his wife, Agatha Sparrow (Virginia Madsen), has the same reaction all of us have: "Walter, you're nuts." Before long, Sparrow imagines himself living out the very book he's reading-and trying to solve its mystery.
We are comfortable, of course, with the metaphor of life-as-plotted-fiction, from Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author to last year's Stranger Than Fiction. But throw in a pulpy, film noir angle, and maybe this one will be different. When Sparrow reads his book, we see the scenes in the full play of noir-grainy shots, the darkest palettes of color, a breathy voiceover by Sparrow himself, and all the stock characters: the femme fatale, the cloaked nemesis, the private detective.
As with most narratives about people who come to believe they are trapped in narratives, Sparrow is obsessed with unraveling the mystery of the book. Ultimately, he finds himself at just this point: What's real, and what power have I to make sense of it? But the film's answer to the old fate vs. reason question is simply to give up asking.