Dir: Joel Schumacher. US. 2007. 94mins.

Jim Carrey continues his beseeching petition of dramatic film fans with The Number 23, a stylish if somewhat murky thriller about one man's downward descent into geometric fixation and madness. The film intriguingly flits around the edges of loopy susceptibility that go hand in hand with obsession and compulsion, but ultimately delivers more on mood than satisfying substance.

A good point of comparison would be the similarly paranoia-soaked Conspiracy Theory, which played to $137m ($76m domestically) in 1997, as that film shoveled analogous doubt on the actions of its protagonist. It did, though, featured two headlining stars in Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts, and additionally had the benefit of Gibson in just the sort of manic mode that audiences embraced. While The Truman Show was a big international hit, Carrey's other departures from broad comedy have all foundered compared to his comic work, and The Number 23 lacks a truly groundbreaking narrative hook or streamlined clarity that would help him break that trend.

Grosses on par with the $54m haul of last summer's The Omen - another movie with ominous numerical connotations - would seem definitely on the optimistic end of the register, with David Fincher's Zodiac opening Stateside the following week and further eroding potentially sympathetic adult audiences. Overseas theatrical prospects seem even more daunting, and hinge as much on selling the concept as Carrey.

The story centres on Walter Sparrow (Carrey), a mild-mannered animal control officer with a loving wife, Agatha (Virginia Madsen), and teenage son, Robin (Logan Lerman). A seemingly innocuous birthday gift, though - a dusty novel that seems to mirror elements of Walter's adolescence in strange ways - sets him off on a dark, twisted path.

The book's main character is a brooding detective named Fingerling (also played by Carrey in segmented flashbacks). He comes across a suicidal woman (Lynn Collins) obsessed by the hidden power of the number 23, claiming it relates to everything around her, from human chromosomes to the tilt of the Earth's axis.

This obsession grips Fingerling and permeates the tome, and soon Walter too sees signs of the number in his own life at every turn. Beset with increasingly nightmarish fantasies, he becomes convinced that he's cursed to commit the same horrific crime as the lead character in the book, and turns to family friend Isaac (Danny Huston), an academic, to try to help him unlock the mysteries of 23.

Soon, though, Walter becomes further convinced that the book has been written not just for him, but about a real murder - a twisted, roman à clef confessional of the sort that OJ Simpson was recently set to publish. A quest to unravel the identity of the enigmatic author promises to change his life forever.

Without giving its secrets away, it suffices to say that like Jacob's Ladder, The Usual Suspects or even the ensemble thriller Identity, The Number 23 has a twist ending that reframes much of what has preceded it. But the connective tissue doesn't expand with the quickened pace of the third act. As Walter scrutinises things more and more, supporting characters are occasionally required to do some puzzling things in the service of his quest, either abetting or obstructing him as a given sequence requires. Motivations and details moving scenes forward become arbitrary.

Debut screenwriter Fernley Phillips creates an effectively colourful and suspicion-tinged framework for one man's frenzied quest, but poorly delineates the specifics of the script's investigative aspects. Either a more fleshed-out appraisal or, paradoxically, a quicker end-game reversal would have benefited the material.

The Number 23 offers both lead actors, but notably Carrey, the chance to play polar extremes as the contented married couple and the hardboiled, clench-jawed characters in the novel within the story. As the movie wears on, though, these stylistic asides become more infrequent and less integral to the story.

There's a certain devil's delight in some of the details and anagrams tossed into the mix, but the mythology about the number 23 is a MacGuffin, really.

That said, The Number 23's lively style and art direction keep it at a boil for large passages of its running time. Schumacher has fun with the noir recreations of Fingerling and his femme fatale counterpart Fabrizia (Madsen again), and together he and cinematographer Matthew Libatique (Requiem For A Dream, Inside Man) trade in saturated tones that perfectly match the early pulpy narration of Fingerling.

Composer Harry Gregson-Williams' baleful contributions, alongside the hard-driving tune Tear You Apart from rock band She Wants Revenge, also help create a palpable sense of the stark, futile world of the novel within the film.

Production companies/backers
New Line Cinema
Firm Films

US distribution
New Line Cinema

International sales
New Line Cinema

Beau Flynn
Tripp Vinson

Executive producers
Mike Drake
Toby Emmerich
Richard Brener
Keith Goldberg
Brooklyn Weaver
Eli Richbourg

Fernley Phillips

Matthew Libatique

Production design
Andrew Laws

Mark Stevens

Harry Gregson-Williams

Main cast
Jim Carrey
Virginia Madsen
Danny Huston
Logan Lerman
Rhona Mitra
Lynn Collins
Mark Pellegrino
Patricia Belcher
Ed Lauter