It’s a common thought process when reading a new novel to put ourselves or people we know into the role of various characters. Only in “The Number 23,” when Walter Sparrow (Jim Carrey, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) receives a book about a detective’s slip into paranoia and dementia, he begins to think he is the book’s protagonist. There is an uncomfortable amount of parallels between himself and the main character, and they all have to do with the number 23.

It appears in relation to everything and everyone, from Sparrow’s address to the date he met his wife to the parking space he just so happens to see outside of a window. Characters in Sparrow’s mental version of the book even appear as the people in his normal life, most notably his blonde wife (Virginia Madsen, “Sideways”) turned sultry, nymphomaniacal femme fatale.

After a while, though, these coincidences go from being potentially creepy to forced and pointless.

With “Number 23,” Director Joel Schumacher (“The Phantom of the Opera”) has bitten off more than he can chew, spending so much time dabbling in various themes of paranoia that he forgets to make a provocative thriller-mystery. Set in motion by a series of coincidences revolving around a stray dog, you might think the film’s about fate. Not necessarily. After Sparrow’s too-vivid reading of a novel, you might think it’s about insanity. Not necessarily. Considering the novel’s detective plot, you might think it’s about murder. Again – not necessarily.

“23” ends up being some combination of all three when a thorough examination of just one would have sufficed. Schumacher’s not up to the challenge and the film ends up clouded, its themes reduced to superficial plot twists.

Carrey, though initially stepping into his familiar role as a nice guy with mental issues, eventually brings something new to his schtick. Sparrow could be easily mistaken for “Eternal Sunshine’s” Joel Barish – a perfectly nice guy, meek and romantically melancholy. But once Carrey appears as the novel’s suave and sado-masochistic Fingerling, he allows a glimpse into his darker, pseudo-Goth side. And it’s actually believable. When Sparrow finally goes completely crazy, Carrey channels his former comic alter-egos into a serious depiction of the mentally deranged and emotionally unbalanced.

But even Carrey’s satisfactory acting isn’t enough to make this psychological mystery interesting. Sparrow eventually plunges into both the novel’s mystery and his own descent into number-driven lunacy.

As the mystery wraps up and Sparrow’s paranoia winds down, the film’s conclusion is so obvious that its poster (a full-face shot of an ominous Carrey) could give away the punch. The bigger mystery is figuring out what the hell was the point of all the innumerable red herrings in an already thematically inundated movie.

Two stars out of five

The Number 23
At Quality 16 and Showcase
New Line

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