Stop Sign

Director David Fincher drains the life out of the story of the serial killer named Zodiac.

The killer who called himself Zodiac may have stopped writing his infamous letters in 1978, but filmgoers from coast to coast are most definitely being bored to death by the big-screen tale of his 1960s-1970s southern California killing spree.

In his based-on-a-true-story film starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr., director David Fincher tosses away his trademark dark deftness behind the camera (Fight Club, Se7en) for the bureaucratically-souled snoozefest that is Zodiac. Forget any kind of period-piece cinematic claustrophobia along the lines of Spike Lee's underrated Summer of Sam (1999). What we have here is a leaden police procedural, a flimsy newsroom drama and a who-cares marriage on the rocks. Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt never create an atmosphere of fear or even vague unease, except for the dread engendered by Mark Ruffalo's character's blue-gingham-patterned pants in a late scene.

Robert Graysmith (Gyllenhaal) is an editorial cartoonist at The San Francisco Chronicle, a man on the fringes of the paper's writing staff. When the first Zodiac letter is delivered to the offices of the paper, Graysmith is sort of accidentally in the editorial meeting; a man with a mind for code, Graysmith copies down the cipher included in the letter for later consideration. Thus begins a lifelong obsession with uncovering the killer's identity that will take over his life and end his marriage before it ever really seems to even begin. In his search for the man behind the zodiac sign, Graysmith outlasts boozily brazen veteran reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) and earnestly plodding police detective Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo).

At just about three hours, Zodiac is slow-moving. Gyllenhaal's central character is anything but for the first half, offering the early parts of the film next-to-no focus and even less of an emotional center. By the time his amateur detective routine kicks in to higher gear (don't get too excited ― it's the narrative equivalent of shifting from park to neutral), it's simply too late. Too much exposition, too little character development. We get that it can't be about Zodiac since so little is known, but can't it be about someone?

Gyllenhaal is compelling, his earnest Graysmith making us wish we care even as we realize we honestly just don't. But the film's truest star is the worn and weary Downey Jr. His Avery is a showboater, a substance abuser, a volatile writer and ultimately a wreck of a human being. In a film with such an excess of information, he's the only one who leaves us wanting more.

In That Number
Jim Carrey's The Number 23 just doesn't quite add up.

The fictional characters readers love best are often the ones they identify with most. Cannibals, kings, commanders at sea ' as long as there's the smallest glimmer of commonality with the person on that page, we are hooked. But what if that person we're getting to know, we're already quite familiar with? What if that person seems an awful lot like us?

Dogcatcher Walter Sparrow (Jim Carrey) is living a pretty normal life until his loving wife Aggie (Virginia Madsen) buys him a little red devil of a book for his birthday. The book, titled The Number 23 and authored by someone named Topsy Kretts (get it?), is about a saxophone-playing police detective named Fingerling. Couldn't be more different than Walter, right? But the more he reads, the more the details around the edges start to hit a little close to home. And that's not the strangest thing he comes across.

The characters in the book are haunted by the number 23, and its seeming connection to absolutely everything under the sun. Swayed by the power of Topsy Krett's prose ' or perhaps just by the power of suggestion ' Walter suddenly sees 23 everywhere. He (not to mention the entire movie) starts to go a little crazy.

Joel Schumacher (Tigerland, Batman & Robin) makes one of the best-looking films of his career. The distinctly filmed worlds of Walter and Fingerling are vividly painted; Walter's world is red and rich, Fingerling's washed-out and kind of goth. Too bad the classy visuals are wasted on the nonsensical script of new writer Fernley Phillips. The 23 fascination works for about five minutes, a supposed-to-be creepy dog is used about four times too many, and the only truly frisson-inducing moment is the film's final bit of dialogue from Walter.

If anything about the movie truly works, it's Carrey. Long underrated as a dramatic performer, he's tangibly frantic as a man whose reality is slowly slipping. He's less believable as the hard-bitten Fingerling, but he's also given significantly less time to convince us. A few more minutes, and audiences might have been mesmerized by more than the police detective's massive back tattoo.

Still, Carrey can't quite carry this one all on his own. The Number 23 is, sadly, not all together greater than the sum of its parts.