Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (United States, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

There's a little Roald Dahl in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, and that leads one to wonder what a twisted director like Danny DeVito (Dahl's Matilda) or Tim Burton (Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) could have made out of this film. It's not that Brad Silberling's approach is bad, but it lacks a certain zing - the quality that would have elevated Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events from the level of passable Hollywood entertainment to inspired. This film will probably grip children more than adults, and, while there is enough material in the movie to keep the over-18 crowd interested, this is not the best family motion picture currently playing in multiplexes.

As almost anyone in the age 8-14 age bracket will tell you, the Lemony Snicket books are second in popularity only to Harry Potter (and some would argue that they are more popular). For this first movie, the filmmakers have elected to cobble together elements from the first three Lemony Snicket tales (The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, and The Wide Window), resulting in a fast-paced but episodic motion picture. In case a sequel is warranted, there's still plenty of untapped material remaining. To date, there are eleven Lemony Snicket books, and writer Daniel Handler isn't done yet.

The title character is played by the ubiquitous Jude Law, whose only real contribution to the movie is to provide a voiceover narrative. (He's also occasionally seen in silhouette.) The real star is Jim Carrey, who, as the nefarious Count Olaf, plays his most sinister character since the Grinch. Although Olaf is not a member of the undead, parallels with Dracula aren't hard to identify. The name could be an homage to "Count Orlock," which was the name of the Dracula character in Nosferatu, and Olaf's first scene borrows heavily from the meet-and-greet with the Lugosi vampire. Throughout the film, it's hard to shake the feeling that Olaf isn't quite human. How much of this kids will get is anyone's guess...

Carrey plays three characters… sort of. In addition to Olaf, he's also a scientist and a seafarer, both of whom are actually Olaf in disguise. The multiple roles give Carrey the opportunity to spread his wings a little. Now that he is pursuing serious projects using his own features, the only times when he goes off the deep end a little (showing signs of the flamboyant, "old" Carrey) is when he is buried under layers of makeup.

The story relates Olaf's various, often elaborate attempts to get his hands on the fortune of the Baudelaire orphans: 14-year old Violet (Emily Browning), pre-teen Klaus (Liam Aiken), and infant Sunny (Kara & Shelby Hoffman). These three are left on their own when a house fire claims the lives of their parents. Just when things seem their darkest, in steps Olaf, claiming to be either "a fourth cousin three times removed or a third cousin four times removed." Olaf thinks of the children's arrival as a godsend - free labor and access to a huge sum of money - until he learns that he can't legally touch the money unless the children die. But, before he can ensure their demise, he is stripped of guardianship. The orphans are given first to Uncle Monty (Billy Connolly) then to Aunt Josephine (Meryl Streep). All the while, however, Olaf is plotting to once again get his hands on the Baudelaires and their money.

The film features three winning child performances. Emily Browning, who plays Violet, bears a passing resemblance to Kirsten Dunst, and has no trouble convincing us that she's a teenage MacGyver. Likewise, Liam Aiken is effective as bookworm Klaus, who would probably be a good opponent for Ken Jennings on "Jeopardy!" The tiny Hoffman twins are delightful, although I wonder how much of their character's appeal is the result of the snarky subtitled translations of Sunny's baby-speak. Those comments offer some of A Series of Unfortunate Events' biggest laughs.

To start this review, I mentioned Roald Dahl, and it's an appropriate connection. Dahl wrote dark, warped stories that were ostensibly for children, and the Lemony Snicket books are in the same vein. As the movie warns in Mr. Snicket's clever opening monologue, this isn't a happy movie. Bad things happen. People die (and don't come back from the dead) and children are mistreated. (Perhaps the most shocking moment in the movie occurs when Olaf slaps Klaus across the face - there's no comedy in that blow.) The film is first and foremost a fantasy, but there are dark currents running just beneath the surface. I give Silberling (Moonlight Mile) credit for not allowing them to swallow the film. Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events manages to remain witty throughout. Coupled with its fast pace and occasional cliffhangers, that makes it a candidate for an easy recommendation, regardless of whether you have previous experience with the books or not.

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (United States, 2004)

Run Time: 1:50
U.S. Release Date: 2004-12-17
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1