These days, when I think of Jim Carrey, I don't envision a performer who automatically longs to be funny. I think of an actor who is frictionless and elastic, who has the slightly detached, quicksilver quality of a talk-show host trying to work up a moment of ''sincerity.'' In his straight roles (it feels wrong, with Carrey, to use a word like serious), his eagerness to please becomes the most prominent thing about him, and he can seem ineffectual, with those pleading eyes and that gawking jaw a nerd parading himself, for no good reason, with the lightness of a clown.
For a while, as I watched him in The Number 23, Joel Schumacher's glossy ''dark'' thriller about murder, numerology, and, you know, what's ''real,'' I experienced the awkwardness I have so often felt, at movies like The Majestic or the remake of Fun With Dick and Jane, when a Jim Carrey ordinary-guy performance isn't working. Tall and goosey, with a shock of hair that falls over his eyes (he now looks like a 45-year-old choirboy), Carrey plays Walter Sparrow, a sweet, mopey dogcatcher, married and with a teenage son. As a birthday gift from his wife (Virginia Madsen), Walter receives a handmade novel that looks as if it's been typed and pasted together by your basic, everyday paranoid schizophrenic conspiracy theorist. It's called The Number 23, it was written by someone named Topsy Kretts, and it's full of coincidence? you decide! hugger-mugger about the number 23. The movie's official press kit offers such spooky examples of the ''23 enigma'' as ''Kurt Cobain died in 1994: 1+9+9+4 = 23.'' A little too much of this sort of thing, and you really could go crazy.
Let us put aside, for a moment, the book's sinister mysteries. Simply accepting Jim Carrey as an average husband and parent requires a backflip of suspended disbelief. Yet it's one that a lot of audiences may find they want to take, if only because Carrey, doing his first creepy-junky puzzle horror thriller, throws himself into blood-bucket acting with a commitment that's scary enough to hold you. (It isn't hard to see why: The man needs a hit.) As Walter reads the book, we see him imagine himself as the main character, a sexy, disheveled detective by the name of Fingerling. Think Carrey imitating Rick Springfield acting like Bogart in a moody cologne commercial. As we watch, Fingerling, with his stubbled scowl, his snaky tattoos, and yes a saxophone, plunges into a compulsive, back-clawing love affair with a dangerous siren (also played by Madsen). He also becomes fixated on the number 23, an obsession that spreads like a virus to Walter, who begins to see the number everywhere, adding together the digits of this birthday or that address, only to end up, over and over again, with 23 (or 32 which, as he breathlessly proclaims, is ''23 in reverse!'').
Are you terrified yet? As Walter jabbers on about hidden numerological signs, we're only too aware that those numbers are as arbitrary in their patterns as the script needs them to be. There are moments when I groaned, and giggled, at The Number 23. Yet after a while, a compelling thing starts to happen. As Walter searches for the key to the book's code (is it a warning? a confession? both?), the stylized, overeager quality of Carrey's acting the very fragility of his impersonation of an average fellow begins to work for the movie. When he points a knife at his wife, quivering like a madman because, just maybe, he's channeling the spirit of a killer, Carrey plays the moment with a conviction more startling, and genuine, than his typical aw-shucks sweetness. Walter's personality, as it turns out, truly is a conceit, a happy-face mask strapped over a soul of anxiety.
He moves into a flophouse, with rotten green light and stains on the walls, and he's drawn into the book's images of a suicide, a student's affair with her professor, a bedroom murder which become interlaced with his own nightmares. Is Walter being driven to commit a murder too? Schumacher parades these visions with a flash-cut trippiness that one remembers from movies like Jacob's Ladder or The Butterfly Effect thrillers gloppy with omens, overly drenched in ''mood.'' But the film's assaultive shock editing holds you, and so does its mystery, which is like The Da Vinci Code with insanity and violence in place of highbrow signifiers. By the end, you'll want to stick around, if only to crack the Jim Carrey code: Is he a real actor after all, or is the rabid urgency with which he keeps trying to be the most real thing about him? B-