I wonder what the crusty old studio boss Sam Goldwyn would have said to Jim Carrey about the script for "The Number 23." I think it might have gone . . . something like this:

"What, are you nuts? Kid, whatsa matter with you? What we need is some nice, fresh new cliches. This cliche is too old. Guy thinks he may have murdered a chick and may soon murder his wife. But he don't know? Who wrote that, a dumb genius? You're funny, kid. You do that thing with your arms all twisty and make your face go goo-goo like pudding, and wear that funny hair! But instead you want to . . . act?"

And the world would indeed have been better off then than it is now, with "The Number 23" in the place of the humble but undoubtedly amusing "Ace Ventura 7."

The movie seems like nothing so much as a vanity project, giving comic genius Carrey a chance to show serious licks as a thespian. And baby, does he thesp! He chews the scenery, the lighting, the wires, all the doughnuts and most of the electricians' trucks! Stuntmen, beware. Script girls, run for your life. Virginia Madsen's hairstylists, hit the deck! Good Lord.

He plays a dogcatcher named Walter Sparrow. It's probably not the first but it's got to be one of very few heroic dogcatcher movies. 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 (Madsen), so she kills time in a secondhand bookstore where she spies a red volume by one "Topsy Krett" called "The Number 23," which she buys and gives to him.

Hoo-hah, then the acting really begins. It seems that author Krett 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. It turns out that this is a most interesting number to a certain turn of mind, with almost limitless mathematical possibilities (see Wikipedia for a brief intro to 23ology). All sorts of patterns and conjurations may be arranged to yield it in some strange place, such as my birth date, 3-25-46. If you subtract 25 from 46, you get 21, then add the 3, you get, er, 24, which is one more than 23! Pretty amazing, huh?

But the book isn't a disquisition, it's actually 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. Hmmm, 23rd nervous breakdown, anyone?

Maybe it's me, but I hate nervous-breakdown movies. Along with other debased pop formats like amnesia movies and he's-chasing-himself movies, they're a lot less interesting to watch than to make.

The director Joel Schumacher and the cinematographer Matthew Libatique are Carrey's enablers. Schumacher, who's old enough to know better, 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. This is the reddest movie ever made, and it posits a world in which a nice bourgeois housewife like Madsen's Agatha decides to paint her living room the color of a fresh murder.

Somehow, both 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! Sparrow becomes convinced that the murderer is actually author Topsy Krett, but that annoyed fellow -- he's in prison for life for the crime -- denies that he killed the girl. 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 that Schumacher has carelessly left all over the set? And will Libatique find a hue of red between magenta crushed peach dawn and heart-transplant deoxygenated purple to fling before the camera's hungry eye?

Oy. As Sam Goldwyn said: Include me out.

The Number 23(95 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for graphic images of murder victims, violence, psychological intensity and profanity.