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Bad to the bone 

Carrey and Cage explore the dark side

It's entirely possible -- not likely, but possible -- that I might have been blindsided by the big twist at the end of The Number 23 had I not just watched The Haunted Strangler a few weeks ago on DVD. That 1958 chestnut stars Boris Karloff as a man whose investigation into a decades-old murder leads him to the same place as Jim Carrey's odyssey does in this new picture. I'm not suggesting that director Joel Schumacher or scripter Fernley Phillips, the team behind The Number 23, have even seen The Haunted Strangler and thus cheerfully borrowed its template -- after all, it's a fairly obscure movie -- but instead I'm merely pointing out that a Hollywood filmmaker serving up a murder-mystery has to work overtime to slip one past dedicated movie fans. Sadly, the folks behind The Number 23 apparently didn't even work past their lunch break, given the obviousness of the end result.

Carrey, once again trying to break out of funnyman mode, delivers his darkest (if hardly most successful) performance to date -- he plays Walter Sparrow, a dog catcher whose brooding personality often seems at odds with his role as a devoted husband (to Virginia Madsen's Agatha) and father (to Logan Lerman's Robin). After several laborious exposition scenes meant to dovetail with Walter's droning voiceover narration about the role of "fate" in our lives, he comes into possession of a self-published book called The Number 23. As Walter begins reading the story of a saxophone-playing detective named Fingerling (played in dramatizations by Carrey) and his carnal entanglements with an Italian femme fatale called Fabrizia (also Madsen), he becomes freaked out by the fact that the book veers closely to his own life story -- once you take out the detective and the saxophone and the femme fatale and other pesky details. Becoming increasingly obsessed with this book (yes, even more than teenagers with a new Harry Potter installment), Walter also notices that the number 23 plays a significant role not only in the novel but also in his own life. He soon realizes that his full name contains 23 letters, his street address contains the number 23, his Social Security number adds up to 23, and so on. And in those instances when something adds up to 32, he breathlessly exclaims (presumably for the benefit of the math-challenged in the audience), "That's 23 reversed!"

Once Fingerling commits murder in the book, Walter fears that he may likewise kill someone close to him, most likely his wife. This in turn propels him to further unearth the paperback's mysteries, a mission that involves him in an unsolved murder that occurred 15 years earlier.

The stylish opening credits, which reveal the number's connection to various tragedies in history (e.g. 9/11/2001 is 9 + 11 + 2 + 1 = 23), is the best part of the movie, not least because of the disingenuous way it reveals that the names William Jefferson Clinton and George Herbert Walker Bush both contain 23 letters apiece and therefore both men might be agents of evil (a savvy way not to alienate one half of the audience right off the bat). After that, the film's hit-and-miss, with Carrey gamely navigating his way through a supposedly tangled tale that's ultimately as easy to unravel as two nylon stockings.

Still, aside from this movie, there does exist a long-held belief that the number 23 has been an important one in history, and that, as with Walter Sparrow, even ordinary folks might be surrounded by evidence of its omnipresence. Chilled by this thought, I added up the digits of my home telephone number. It comes out to 41. Undeterred, I added up my Social Security numbers -- 25. The letters in my name -- 19. The due date on my next mortgage payment -- 11. The expiration date on this juice bottle at my side -- 14. The UPC number on this reference book I have here -- 60. The dollar amount I presently have in my wallet -- 23. Oh my God, they're right!

Is it possible that before making the big-screen version of Ghost Rider, writer-director Mark Steven Johnson had never even read a Ghost Rider comic book? Yes, I know as well as anyone that faithfulness to the source material is a low priority when it comes to Hollywood, whether adapting Stan Lee or Lee Child. But Johnson, whose version of Daredevil wasn't quite as bad as the press made out, here botches what would have seemed to be a fairly manageable assignment.

The comics' original Johnny Blaze wasn't a joke-a-second character like Peter Parker or The Fantastic Four's Ben Grimm. He was more somber and serious, as one would expect from a biker who sold his soul to the devil (to save the life of a loved one) and then found himself living under a curse that transformed him into a flaming-skull creature whenever in the presence of evil. Of course, when you hire Nicolas Cage to star in your movie, it's safe to assume that camp was what was intended all along.

Cage, whose best film in recent years has been the hilarious Wicker Man reedit currently gracing YouTube (check it out at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e6i2WRreARo; it has the power to brighten anyone's week), falls back on the eye-popping, head-rolling overacting that has turned him into this decade's Rod Steiger. Amazingly, though, he doesn't deliver the movie's worst performance; instead, he lands in the show position, right under Eva Mendes as the somnambular love interest and the mesmerizingly awful Wes Bentley as one of the least convincing -- and therefore least threatening -- villains of recent vintage.

On the plus side, the special effects are pretty cool, and it was inspired to cast Peter Fonda as Mephistopheles (Easy Rider, meet Ghost Rider). Otherwise, this is yet another comic book adaptation that goes up in flames before our very eyes.

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