Unlucky Jim: Carrey Fails to Thrill

I admire Jim Carrey for always trying to break out of his own cage, the career-challenging attempts to remain rich

I admire Jim Carrey for always trying to break out of his own cage, the career-challenging attempts to remain rich and famous without boring himself to death and still having self-respect. Handsome, versatile and fearless, he thumps along in a constant battle between the moronic roles he’s famous for—the idiot farces like Dumb & Dumber and How the Grinch Stole Christmas—and the demanding forays into a narrower but more satisfying adult world of artistic achievements like The Truman Show and The Majestic, which are usually doomed as box-office flops. I always seem to favor the flops. At 45, he’s now trying something he’s never done before, a genre film to keep him at arm’s distance from the stuff he does in his sleep—a violent psychological thriller called The Number 23. The result is different, all right: contrived, incomprehensible gibberish that exists for the sole purpose of exposing a miscast star in a career stretch for which he is pathetically unprepared. It’s the worst kind of flop, a flop for its own sake.

This guy faces the same on-screen dilemmas as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sly Stallone. It must be rough for him to break out of his cookie-cutter mold to find a balance between the assigned fate of celebrated movie-star icon whose fans expect and demand the same goofball double takes over and over again, and the fulfilling redemption that inevitably comes with the knowledge that there is more to acting than slapstick, pratfalls, rude noises in the toilet, and custard pies in the face. I knew he could act back in 1992, when he played the alcoholic son of a dysfunctional all-American family in the made-for-TV drama Doing Time on Maple Drive, but he gave up serious acting shortly after that, and from his big-screen breakthrough in The Mask it was downhill all the way. Still, I applauded his courage, mixing sub-mental characters like the hero of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective with tortured, self-destructive life forces like comic Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon. Now there is fresh evidence that he wants to pursue an even broader agenda, ignore the easy shortcuts, work hard to prove his value, and maybe get some good reviews for a change. It will take a much better movie than The Number 23 to do it.

Without playing the fool, Mr. Carrey plays Walter Sparrow, a mild-mannered dogcatcher with a brilliant wife and teenage son whose sudden obsession with the coincidences surrounding the number 23 crosses over to the dark side of insanity, decadence and death. Numerology students may be fascinated by the catalog of references to the number 23 contained in the murky gumbo of a script (by somebody named Fernley Phillips): It runs the gamut from the number of letters in both the Latin alphabet and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s name, to the most popular psalm in the Bible. The rest of us will giggle and yawn. Anyway, on Walter’s birthday, his wife Agatha (a totally wasted Virginia Madsen) gives him a book called The Number 23 that seems to reveal secrets that apply only to his life. While Walter reads aloud from this mysterious, unpublished parapsychological nightmare, the narration turns into dramatically staged episodes in the cinema of his mind, in which he becomes a saxophone-playing Mike Hammer–style detective who is also a serial killer. In his job, a stray dog bites him, inflicting a deep wound that requires stitches. But in the book’s chapters, the same dog turns out to be guarding the grave of a girl he is suspected of murdering. The number 23 dominates everything, linking him with the date of maniac Ted Bundy’s death in the electric chair. Are the horrors in the book figments of his imagination, or are the 23 chapters real clues to unsolved crimes? How will it all end? Who knows? Chapter 23 is blank. And so he drags his wife and son into a search for the identity of the killer by outlining every 23rd word on every 23rd page. Their lives become endangered, and so does the possibility of taking seriously the laugh-out-loud direction by Joel Schumacher, who has been influenced by David Lynch to the point of lunacy. Like Mr. Lynch’s curios, the fragments of the puzzle never add up to a completed design. Did I fail to mention that not one word of this movie makes one lick of sense? It would take 23 asylum inmates to explain the ending that finally drives Jim Carrey into a straitjacket and the audience racing for the door marked “Exit.”

The Number 23 appears to have been made by people on psychedelic mushrooms. It takes the dogcatcher the entire length of the film, which covers several months in time, to finish the book, proving only one thing: He’s a slow reader. Jim Carrey might secretly suffer from a similar problem. There might be a reason his movies are so bad. Maybe he can’t read the scripts. No matter. He knocks himself here, growing his hair long and filthy, his fingernails rotten with dirt, festering visually to a rancid green, much like Christian Bale in The Machinist. He takes it all seriously. The audience does all the laughing. Never mind. The Number 23 may be a catastrophe that disappears overnight, but like Banquo’s ghost, I predict that Jim Carrey will survive the funeral.

A Space Odyssey

In the whimsical fable The Astronaut Farmer, Billy Bob Thornton is so good, so charming and so inspired by the role of Charlie Farmer, a stubborn Texas cowboy who builds his own spaceship in his barn and launches it into outer space, that he almost makes you believe in Tinker Bell, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. Charlie didn’t make it to NASA, but his lifelong dream of becoming an astronaut never died. Nobody in town thinks he’s tightly wrapped except his loyal, supportive and long-suffering wife Audie (Virginia Madsen again, who also skyrocketed into space after Sideways), his two little daughters and the 15-year-old son he drags out of school to be his flight commander, operating out of mission control in the hayloft. Charlie’s credit rating is shot, the bank is foreclosing the mortgage on his 352-acre ranch, and the judge orders a psychiatric exam. But it’s his order for 10,000 pounds of illegal rocket fuel that, thanks to the Patriot Act, brings the F.B.I., C.I.A., F.A.A., U.S. military, Department of Homeland Security and the international press to the farm, as well as the commander of the NASA space shuttle (played by Bruce Willis, trim and toned, with a handsome new hairpiece), who drops in for one of Audie’s fried-chicken dinners. Does it launch? Well, the first try is a near-fatal disaster that bankrupts Charlie and lands him in the hospital. Then Charlie’s father-in-law (Bruce Dern) saves the day (and the movie), and they start all over again, doing overnight what it takes NASA decades of aeronautics engineering to achieve. “If we don’t have our dreams, we have nothing,” says Charlie in the closest thing this heartfelt little family film gets to philosophy. While there’s actually no law—yet!—to forbid an American citizen from constructing his own gravity-defying rocket missile, this is another of those “Follow your dream and you will find inner peace” fantasies you should not try at home.

Does Charlie at last orbit the moon on his second try? What good is a fable if you know how it ends before you even see it? And it is worth seeing for the honesty, thrill and dedication of Billy Bob Thornton at his best. There’s one kitchen-table scene in which he entices his finicky children to find magic in their cereal that is so moment-to-moment heartbreaking you could swear he studied at the Actors Studio. Directed with sincerity by Michael Polish, who co-authored the sweet screenplay with his brother Mark, The Astronaut Farmer is a feel-good movie about the indomitable spirit of a can-do dreamer who does when everybody says don’t. It is not for cynics. I know it’s a fable, and the premise is so ridiculous you may roll your eyes, but I found myself rooting for Charlie and his Seven-Up can of a rocket ship in spite of myself. In boots, spurs and bow-legged jeans under his homemade Stanley Kubrick space suit, Billy Bob makes dreamers of us all.

Family Act

The music scene is divinely enhanced this week at the Algonquin, where the cultured and wise are flocking to hear the elegiac singing of Sandy Stewart and the sophisticated chords of her ace-pianist son, Bill Charlap. Without frills, artifice or attitude, they’re the real deal. From the opening number, an artfully composed “Why Did I Choose You,” to a trio of gorgeous Rodgers and Hammerstein ballads from The King and I, Sandy is quiet as a whisper, scarcely using the mike at all. On “My Heart Stood Still,” her emphasis on Lorenz Hart’s word “thrill” trembles like a blush of first love. The great Dietz-Schwartz gem “I See Your Face Before Me” is a masterpiece of understatement. She picks up the tempo on “That Face,” soft as velvet and shiny as freshly ironed taffeta, with only a smoke ring’s trace of vibrato. In Bill’s solo outing, he swings artfully through a medley of Cole Porter and the Gershwins, with a bit of Art Tatum stride. Nothing corny here—no stupid jabber, and none of those trendy, terrible and utterly forgettable tunes that most singers throw in to prove they’re “today.” Sandy Stewart is true to what makes her feel like she’s home: classics from the Great American Songbook that bring out the lyrical symmetry in a singing style that is thrilling. Even “My Funny Valentine” is less boring than usual, because she only uses it as a set-up for a superior and much more hauntingly beautiful excursion into ballad bondage called “Lovers After All,” by Johnny Mandel and Richard Rodney Bennett. She is not a seeker of the improvisational road less traveled that jazz critics call “creative,” but which more often takes precedence over the lyrical content of the composer’s intentions. She doesn’t deconstruct; she sings simply, from the heart, finding nuance in every phrase. In a noisy, banal cabaret scene overcrowded with mediocrity, Sandy Stewart and Bill Charlap are the square root of marvelous. I could listen to this tasteful duo for nights on end. So get yourself over to the Algonquin, experience genuine ecstasy, and learn something. Unlucky Jim: Carrey Fails to Thrill