In "The Number 23,"Jim Carrey plays a dogcatcher named Walter Sparrow. The setting is a small California town, and the dog he tries to catch is Ned, who bites him, which makes him late to meet his wife, Agatha (Virginia Madsen), so she kills time in a secondhand bookstore, where she spies a red volume called "The Number 23," which she buys and gives to him.

Hoo-hah, then the acting really begins. It seems that the book's author is doing riffs on the strange melodies concealed within the bland confines of the number that starts with 2 and ends with 3 and has nothing in between. But the book isn't a disquisition; it's a novel, about a man who sees 23 everywhere until there's nothing but 23, and, as he reads the book, the dogcatcher starts seeing the number 23 everywhere, too.

Director Joel Schumacher and cinematographer Matthew Libatique are Carrey's enablers. Schumacher gives the movie a jittery quality, as if he's having a nervous breakdown, too, and a symptom seems to be that he puts lights in strange places. Libatique is also having a nervous breakdown, and his symptoms include the urge to splatter O-negative red everywhere.

Somehow, the book and the movie lead Carrey's Sparrow to the murder, 13 years earlier, of a young woman by her professor. On the 23rd of February! Who killed the girl? Who wrote the book? Why does Walter now get all goober-skinned when his hands caress the handles of the various butcher knives Schumacher has carelessly l eft all over the set? And will Libatique find a new hue of red to fling across the camera range?

Oy. As Sam Goldwyn said: Include me out.

-- Stephen Hunter

The Number 23R, 95 minutes

Contains graphic images of murder victims, violence, psychological intensity and profanity. Area theaters.