He’s an accident-prone amnesiac, the lead, but his inability to feel pain brings him celebrity; Ferrell’s eye-catching debut is a mordant take on contemporary culture.
Out of the sandstorm he stumbles, this skinny young man with the bleeding head wound, into some circus tents near the Texas highway. There’s no sign of a wreck; what happened is a mystery, for the guy has lost his memory. “I’m numb,” he says. No pain for Numb, his new name, and some gain for Mr. Tilly, sleazy owner of this bankrupt circus; Numb becomes their star attraction, hammering nails into himself. Next step: some time in the lion’s cage. The one person concerned for his welfare is Mal, the fire-eating machete juggler. Numb survives, with deep claw marks in his thigh, and he and Mal travel to New York, where Mal has Numb continue his lucrative act. Mal is variously friend, exploiter and rival; that last role leads to his spectacular demise. Soon Numb acquires a savvy talent agent who hooks him up (“cross-promotion”) with the Japanese Hiko, a hot downtown sculptor. She’s blind; doing his casts, she’s fascinated by his scarred skin texture. They become lovers (Hiko’s initiative); Numb moves in with her. The buzz grows. Hiko has a splashy opening; Numb does TV commercials and is on Dave. Though it lacks the exhilarating strangeness of the circus, this world of surfaces is a perfect fit for a freak without a past; that past becomes irrelevant as Numb’s actions define his character. While drawn to danger, he’s basically passive, and stupidly self-destructive, cheating on Hiko with a beautiful model he’s been warned will use and discard him. Only near the end, in Los Angeles, where he’s set to star in his life story (“a reality formula”), does he rebel against his handlers and the sleaze they’re peddling.
Even though Ferrell’s exploration of identity comes up short, that’s a small blemish on this artfully barbed entertainment.