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"Dourly delightful."
"Comes across as an uneven series of bizarre events, lacking in cohesion and lacking in purpose."
"Its lack of completeness makes it only mildly diverting."
Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events  


Cast

Count Olaf: Jim Carrey
Violet Baudelaire: Emily Browning
Klaus Baudelaire: Liam Aiken
Aunt Josephine: Meryl Streep
Lemony Snicket: Jude Law
Sunny: Kara and Shelby Hoffman
Mr. Poe: Timothy Spall
Justice Strauss: Catherine O'Hara
Uncle Monty: Billy Connolly
Review December 2004

Dear Reader. I'm sorry to say that the review you are about to read may be extremely unpleasant in nature. It concerns the recent film by Brad Silberling, director of "City of Angels" and "Moonlight Mile," and stars a melancholy cast consisting of Jim Carrey, Meryl Streep, and Jude Law. Did I mention the children? Emily Browning, Liam Aiken, and Kara and Shelby Hoffman are oh so talented and clever. But don't let their charm and optimism deceive you. This is a woeful tale that will fill you with despair. It's about three Baudelaire children who become orphaned and entrusted to the evil Count Olaf, a horrible villain intent on stealing their fortune and making life miserable. A fire, a car accident, a deadly serpent, hungry leeches, and a massive hurricane are just a few of the many misfortunes that lie ahead. Of course, it's not too late to find something more pleasant and cheerful to read or watch. But if distress and discomfort do not cause you worry, you too may find "Lemony Snicket" dourly delightful.

Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire are the three unique children of the wealthy Baudelaire family. Violet, the oldest, is considered one of the greatest inventors in the world. Her brother Klaus is an avid researcher of extraordinary knowledge. And their baby sister Sunny has uncharacteristically sharp teeth. Together, they would venture off to Briny Beach and spend the day skipping rocks along the shore, examining ocean life, and biting lots of things. On a particularly cloudy day, the children are approached by a bank official named Mr. Poe, who regretfully informs them of a disheartening tragedy - a terrible fire has engulfed their home and their parents. Although they are left with a large fortune, they would have to wait many years before coming of legal age and inheriting the money. In the meantime, they are cast as orphans and left with their closest relative - Count Olaf, a fourth cousin three times removed.

Count Olaf is a greedy, evil genius who makes no qualms about his intent. Says Olaf: "All that I ask is that you do every little thing that pops into my head, while I enjoy the enormous fortune your parents left behind." However, the Baudelaire children are superior in ingenuity, escaping Olaf's diabolical deeds and exposing his bad parenting. In fact, their resourcefulness helps get them removed from Olaf's care entirely and placed under Uncle Monty, a renowned snake expert who wishes to take them to Peru. But an unexpected event happens after the arrival of a suspicious lab assistant and the children are once again removed to another relative. This time, it's the fearful Aunt Josephine. Yet, before the children can get too comfortable, disaster strikes once more with the arrival of a mysterious peg legged sailor, forcing the children into a final act, an act in which the Count and his theatrical miscreants aim to steal the Baudelaire fortune.

So who exactly is Lemony Snicket? Well, it's the pen name of a mysterious author who arrived on the scene in 1999, detailing the series of unfortunate events that befell the Baudelaire orphans. Many have suggested that the mysterious author is a fraud, a criminal, a fictitious character, or at best, an unreliable narrator. But most know him as 34-year-old Daniel Handler, a dark humorist with adult works like Watch Your Mouth and The Basic Eight . Although not originally a children's book author, Handler crossed over and created a successful franchise with over 18 million copies sold. Currently, there are eleven novels in the children's series (which will wrap things up with lucky 13) and this film combines the first three storylines: The Bad Beginning , The Reptile Room , and The Wide Window . Above all, what makes each a fascinating read is the author's uncanny "ability" to tickle audiences' curiosity with the unknown, the unfortunate, and the urge to "read something else."

Like the books in the series, the film is inspired by the illustrations of Brett Helquist. Just look at the beautifully animated closing credits, an animated piece that will keep you in your seat well after the film is over. Director Brad Silberling is responsible for this vision, putting together an award winning team to tell the Baudelaire tale - production designer Rick Heinrichs, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and costume designer Colleen Atwood all from the foreboding "Sleepy Hollow." Combined, the pieces fit together in a way that projects gloom and whimsy much like Tim Burton achieved with his tale of the headless horseman. Although there are representations or artifacts that would suggest a particular time and place, the brilliance of the art and production design, the costumes, and the camera work is that you are transported into a different world where time and place are indiscernible.

One thing that is discernible is Jim Carrey's remarkable ability to transform from one character to the next. Whether portraying the megalomaniac Count Olaf, the Italian lab assistant Stefano, or the peg legged mariner, Captain Sham, Carrey demonstrates brilliance adapting to each persona. The only drawback is that his inner comic shines through Olaf, altering him from a lawfully evil character into a chaotically silly one. It's not distracting, but take note of the final confrontation between Olaf and Josephine and see how watered down it becomes as a result. The children are well cast, of course, although a bit heavy on the indifference and gloom. And oddly enough, the best performances come from those with the least amount of screen time - Meryl Streep and Jude Law. Streep is fabulous as Aunt Josephine, a character who is terrified of realtors, although her fragility makes you wonder if she's not afraid of everything. And Jude Law narrates to perfection, capturing the tone and sharpness of Snicket himself, without excessive exuberance or malaise.

Remaining true to the spirit and style found in the collection of unfortunate books, Silberling does an amazing job with detail and effects. However, to the outsider, the film comes across as an uneven series of bizarre events, lacking in cohesion and lacking in purpose. And it is the result of porous screenwriting. Here, the script fails to make sense of the character dilemmas, it fails to fill the characters with purpose, and it fails to define the logic that binds them all together. It does not connect the dots between Olaf and the Baudelaires, the fires and the hurricanes, and the significance of the spyglasses. And it does not explain the lack of grief exhibited by the children who lost their parents and continue to lose relatives, tragic events that do not result in a single tear. My guess is that much more will be uncovered or explained in future films, but that leaves this picture as more of an entr?e and less of a main dish.

Ironically, it was "A Series of Unfortunate Events" that knocked "Harry Potter" from The New York Times' bestseller list. And it's no surprise that it too made it to the big screen. However, unlike the "Harry Potter" films, "A Series of Unfortunate Events" does not do a good job of informing the uninformed. While there are some great performances and even greater effects, there is nothing to interpret or conclude to without knowing the bigger picture. Much of this is attributed to the writing. In the "Lemony Snicket" series, each book is formulaic, dependent upon a larger story arc for resolution instead of smaller arcs and resolutions that tie into a whole. Although the film retains the series' unpredictability, timelessness, and penchant for woe, its lack of completeness makes it only mildly diverting. And that, dear reader, is a most unfortunate event.



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