Published Dec 01, 2004Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events has always held true to its title: an onrush of ill-fated circumstances constantly surround the Baudelaire orphans: Violet (age 14, likes inventing), Klaus (age 11, likes reading) and Sunny (an infant, likes biting things). Through an ever-growing set of books, narrator Lemony Snicket chronicles one bad turn after another as the trio overcomes odds and tries to avoid their evil distant relation Count Olaf, who's after their family fortune.
To make a kids-oriented movie in which the children are orphaned in the first 30 seconds, and where peril and misfortune greet them at every turn, is a significant challenge. So director Brad Silberling (Moonlight Mile) has turned the first three books (by Magnetic Fields' collaborator Daniel Handler) into a particularly over-the-top tale of gothic spookiness in which Jim Carrey seems right at home. Carrey, of course, is Count Olaf: impoverished actor, obsequious guardian and obnoxious greed-hound. He lives in a broken down mansion that might have housed a down-on-his-luck Willy Wonka; through the series of events foretold in the title, the children must avoid peril and Olaf in an ongoing chronicle of misfortune.
For those familiar with the books, their formula is quite familiar: after the first book, the evil machinations of Count Olaf are discovered and the children are shipped off to a different guardian, where invariably Olaf appears again in disguise and attempts some tomfoolery. For the film, screenwriter Robert Gordon (Men in Black II) has sliced the first book in half and sandwiched books two and three into its middle. (Don't worry, it works quite effectively.) Thus the children escape Olaf and live alternately with reptile expert Uncle Monty (Billy Connelly) and with paranoid widower Aunt Josephine (Meryl Streep), neither of whom prove themselves as worthy guardians in the face of Olaf, to whom the children are invariably returned.
Because plot-wise the books are so formulaic, their joy comes in their delight with language, their plays on words and circumstances that seem too unbelievable for a children's narrative. But the film has, without mimicking what must be a literary device, managed to honour it in many ways. Infant biter Sunny, whose baby talk is often key to the book's momentum, gets her chatter cleverly subtitled. Both Violet (Emily Browning) and Klaus (Liam Aiken) maintain their "sanity in an insane world" perspective. And Jim Carrey actually manages to match tone and subject with his ridiculous performance: in the face of the material it's hard to go any other way, and I can think of no one better equipped to pull it off.
By balancing art direction, script, tone, casting and an irrepressible sense of fun, Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events actually lives up to both its name and the spirit of its creation. And for those on the Jude Law watch (he plays shadowed narrator Snicket), this is, like, the 18th film he's been in this fall. (Paramount)