The Number 23 revolves around an ordinary man who finds a book called The Number 23 and begins to see that number everywhere (11:12 on the bedside clock—11+12 = 23)—which triggers fevered hallucinations of himself as a gumshoe chasing a “suicide blonde” in settings reminiscent of a fifties pulp novel, as well as nasty encounters with a half-dark, half-light mutt called Ned with a predilection for cemeteries. It’s not the stupidest premise of all time. In Darren Aronofsky’s brilliant Pi, a man’s obsession with a mathematical constant spirals into an existential maelstrom. Jonathan Carroll churns out fast, enjoyable novels in which portentous signs (among them pooches) foreshadow the trapdoor about to open under their protagonists’ so-called reality. No, The Number 23 didn’t have to be as narcotizingly bad as it is. The stars had to be in perfect alignment.
The biggest star, of course, is Jim Carrey, who obviously relished the chance to fall apart on camera. The problem is that he’s never together on camera. As a hyperstylized clown, he has the instincts (and the discipline) to modulate those ever-ready tics and spasms and rubber-jawed gyrations. Shackled by realism—and by the seriousness of this enterprise—he can only act more catatonic: His brain seems to be grinding emptiness. As his wife, the demure Virginia Madsen is attentive to the point of self-effacement. Scene after scene consists of her (along with the other actors) watching the star in his impotent frenzy.
Given a script, by Fernley Phillips, that feels like a film-school exercise—all structure, no stuffing—Joel Schumacher works his familiar anti-magic. Incapable, like his leading man, of establishing a baseline of realism, he delivers one overdesigned, overcostumed, overlit image after another. Shot by computer-enhanced shot, The Number 23 is impressive, but those shots don’t come from anywhere or build on one another. All the connective tissue is missing; there’s no there there. Are there supernatural forces at work behind the recurring 23s? Or are we watching the return of the repressed—a guilty conscience eating through the protagonist’s façade of normalcy? I won’t give away the ending, which manages to be both preposterous and mundane. The movie is successful in one respect: It proves that 23 is some bad-ass number, indeed.
The story of William Wilberforce’s exhausting, twenty-year struggle to persuade the House of Commons to outlaw slavery in Great Britain, Michael Apted’s Amazing Grace is a beautifully chiseled blunt instrument. No, it’s not subtle, but how subtle was slavery? The movie opens with an ailing Wilberforce hopping out of his carriage to stop a man from beating a fallen horse (in close-up), and that’s about as morally complex as it gets. Given that we don’t need to be convinced that chaining men, women, and children in the holds of cargo ships (killing more than half) is a very bad thing, the drama comes from how the hero confronts—and confounds—the overweening self-interest of his opponents.
It is instructive even today. Because Britain’s ruling class has no firsthand acquaintance with the stink of Africans dying in their own waste, Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd) lures a group of lords and ladies aboard a party boat, where they are plied with food and wine until their vessel pulls up beside a reeking slave ship: The noblewomen weep while the noblemen quail. When he is shouted down by his fellow legislators, Wilberforce and a band of fellow abolitionists take their case to the people—publishing books and pamphlets, manufacturing cameos, organizing sugar boycotts, and generating petitions with hundreds of thousands of signatures. Still unable to sway the majority, they resort to a piece of legislative trickery I hope will inspire today’s boringly fair-minded progressives.
Amazing Grace isn’t all politics: It opens at the fifteen-year mark in Wilberforce’s crusade, when he’s broken in mind and body. Fortunately, the wealthy bachelor is set up with the fetching fellow progressive Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai), who fastens her big blue eyes on his well-sculpted face while he tells her the story of his movement and manages not to stare at her cleavage. After 90 minutes of flashbacks, she gives him a second wind—inspiring him to round up the old abolition gang and give it one last push. I don’t know if the epigrams that tumble from Wilberforce’s mouth are the work of the screenwriter, Steven Knight, or taken directly from the parliamentary record, but their bite is surprising. You should hear him, before he takes up the Africans’ cause, risk being branded an appeaser by imploring this congress to bring the troops home before thousands more die in a losing war abroad. (He’s talking about America, of course. I mean, during the Revolution.)
A lot of very fine actors have jumped on Apted’s anti-slave ship to help him mark the bicentennial of the abolition of Britain’s slave trade. Gruffudd is every inch the five-foot-four Wilberforce plus another eight or so to allow him to loom over the diminutive Toby Jones, who plays the sneering Duke of Clarence. Michael Gambon shows off his peerless timing as a lordly convert to Wilberforce’s cause, and a young actor with the formidable name of Benedict Cumberbatch makes Wilberforce’s pal William Pitt (the Younger) a character of equal stature. It’s fun to see Rufus Sewell, usually a villain, on the side of the angels, and to watch Albert Finney use his groggy demeanor and phlegmatic voice to suggest the torment of John Newton, the slave-ship captain turned pastor who wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace” to atone for the horrors over which he’d presided.