It seemed like, in the wake of Harry Potter's monumental success, school kids suddenly became literate. Reading was, if not exactly cool, at least trendy among the elementary school set. One of the people riding this big business boost to Scholastic Book Services (from whom I purchased many an Encyclopedia Brown volume) was author Daniel Handler's pseudonymously written kiddy book series Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events.
With the cinematic success of the Harry Potter films, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood came knocking at Lemony Snicket's multi-
Like the books that inspired them, A Series of Unfortunate Events freely mixes the worlds of Harry Potter, Tim Burton and Edward Gorey. The story begins, amusingly enough, with the story's unseen narrator, Lemony Snicket (voiced by Jude Law in his sixth film appearance of the season), imploring audiences to go see another, far happier film in the theater next door. This, after all, is a tale about murder, orphans and assorted slimy creatures. At least Handler's grisly wit is on full display.
Right off the bat, A Series of Unfortunate Events weaves itself a mesmerizing atmosphere. Victorian clothing, Depression-era cars and a Gothic sense of architecture give the film a timeless antique feel. The grim, grey-toned look of the film is a far cry from your average family film. You'd have to go back to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory to find anything similar. And even that cult classic didn't have such a self-consciously sunless style.
Following Mr. Snicket's warnings, we are introduced to the three Baudelaire children. Violet (Emily Browning) is the oldest, a clever teenage gal who excels in the area of invention. Klaus is the middle child, a ravenous reader who has stuffed his brain full of useful trivia. Sunny (Kara and Shelby Hoffman) is the baby of the bunch, a mouthy little biting machine who can chew through anything. Unfortunately (as you can tell from the title), the Baudelaire children have been orphaned by a mysterious fire that has killed their parents and burned down their spacious home. Shipped off to their nearest relative, the kids soon find themselves in the custody of their uncle, Count Olaf (Jim Carrey), a seedy actor who only wants to get his hands on their fat inheritance.
After several bungled attempts at killing the children, Count Olaf is stripped of custody and the kids are filtered through a series of oddball relatives (including Billy Connolly and Meryl Streep). Unfortunately (again that word), these would-be guardians are all bumped off thanks to the nasty machinations of evil Count Olaf.
The atmosphere in A Series of Unfortunate Events is marvelous. The sets and costumes are endlessly fascinating. The characters are compelling. Unfortunately (the third and final time, I promise), the film can't seem to muster up much of a narrative. There are hints of a more complex story (a secret society, an international conspiracy, a deadly weapon), but none of this ever bubbles to the surface. Even by plundering three of Handler's slim volumes (The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room and The Wide Window), the film is a little more than a thin chain of vignettes.
Since the Lemony Snicket books are still being cranked out at a record pace (11 books and counting), the film is obliged to provide some sort of ending. It does so in a quick and cursory manner. Exposing Count Olaf as the main villain hardly qualifies as a surprise ending, and it brings up more questions than it answers. (Why is a pitiful, poverty-stricken actor also a mad, international arsonist? How did the Baudelaire parents fail to notice that the source of the fires they had spent their lives investigating was actually their relative who lived down the street?)
Carrey obviously devours his campy villain role with gusto. He's one of the best reasons for endorsing this film. Of the children, Australian actress Emily Browning shows off some sizable screen presence. I don't know what it is about this girl, but I do know she's going to be a big star in a few years. Billy Connolly and Meryl Streep both add some color in their respective roles. Staffing the rest of the film with such ringers as Jennifer Saunders (American Pie), Luis Guzmán (Boogie Nights), Craig Ferguson (“The Drew Carey Show”) and Jane Adams (“Frasier”), however, seems like a waste of time. They aren't given so much as a line of dialogue to play with.
Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events has a great visual atmosphere, a fine cast and a sharp literate style. It does everything it can to bring its source material to life. Unfortunately (OK--one last time), it only emphasizes the episodic, unending nature of the books.
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