Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events
Lemony Snicket, the fictional psudonym of author Daniel Handler, played in the film based on his books by a silhouette of Jude Law, relates the tragic misadventures of the Baudelaire children after the death of their parents in a massive fire. His narration, wry and British in its foreboding warnings of gruesome tales, provides some insight into the filmmaker's intentions: their story is scary enough to please children who have outgrown saccharine entertainment like "The Littlest Elf," but not so scary that they won't be able to sleep that night for fears of death by arson.
More and more unfortunate events follow the children even after their parents are buried. Their home consumed by flames, and with no close relatives or friends to turn to, eldest daughter Violet, middle child Klaus, and infant Sunny are sent to live with failed actor Count Olaf (Jim Carrey), who plans to kill them and steal their stately inheritance. Even after the kindly but non-observant banker Mr. Poe (Timothy Spall) frees them from Olaf's evil clutches, placing them with a variety of other relatives that include friendly herpetologist Montgomery Montgomery (Billy Connelly) and the highly neurotic Aunt Josephine, they are not safe from his wild scheming, as he chases them from foster home to foster home in a murderous frenzy.
This sharply dark humor is something of a relief, seeing it as I did the day after I witnessed the treacly horror that is Finding Neverland. I don't know when I've last seen a children's film with death so clearly in mind at all times (okay, I do...Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), and it's refreshing that director Brad Silberling refuses to soften the harsh realities of life for his young protagonists, providing them instead with a steely resolve in the face of countless setbacks and unimaginable suffering.
He is aided in this task by the entire effects and design team, who have created for Lemony Snicket a vast storybook world mirroring our own, but definitely apart from it. The sets, particularly Olaf's deteriorating mansion and the home of Aunt Josephine, literally teetering on the edge of a rocky cliff, echo the gothic themes of the storytelling, and never fail to impress. The effects work similarly dazzles. Clearly, a lot of very talented artists spent a great deal of time fashioning a unique visual style for the film, and all of their hard work appears on the screen.
And let me just say that Jim Carrey has had, in 2004, his best year of film acting yet. His performance in this year's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was the best, most subtle work he's ever done, and Count Olaf provides him with the most promising comic role he's had to date. Though Snicket's production brings considerable charm and flair along with it, Carrey runs away with the show, zapping the movie full of much-needed life, particularly during a slowly-paced final half hour. Olaf, who fancies himself a Master of Disguise, has frequent need to stalk the orphans incognito, the better to carry out his nefarious plans, providing Carrey with a reasonable excuse to engage in his usual brand of over-the-top shenanigans. But it's in some of the quieter moments between him and his tempermental charges that Carrey really shines, imbibing Olaf with a gleeful menace he's never really carried off before (particularly in his abysmal portrayal of The Riddler in Batman Forever).
It's not all gravy, unfortunately. Though all the aforementioned factors fit nicely into place, and Snicket is a solid-enough literary adaptation to please fans of the original books, the movie never really comes together as a whole. It was entertaining enough, sure, but I doubt it's a classic children will return to over the years. The storytelling has wit and charm, but never dares to explore the emotional life of any of its characters.
This is understandable, in a way. So many horrors face the Baudelaire children that to deal with them honestly for even a few scenes could kill any comic momentum the film had built up. But with such a segmented story (it is, after all, based on three separate novels) and so many cartoonish set pieces, Lemony Snicket barely finds time to make us invest in its world of wonders at all. It feels oddly distant, like an exhibition we are invited to admire but not to touch, placing it completely at odds with Cuaron's Harry Potter film of this year, that enveloped the viewer so completely in the cool blues and grays of the English countryside.
And the children don't much help matters. I feel weird writing a review bagging on child actors, and they are by no means horrible performers by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, whereas most child actors annoy me by "acting," speaking their lines as if they've had tremendous amounts of preparation from overly attentive stage mothers, these actors underplay most of their scenes. Subtlety of performance is great, but these kids can barely work up a sob when they are told of their parents untimely demise. In fact, the most dramatic shot in the film, which Silberling comes back to several times, shows only the shadows of the orphans backlit through a tent, with the outlines of their parents projected above them. It's pretty telling that the most emotionally involving moment in the entire movie features not a single actor's face on screen.
At the film's close, we are treated to a single scene of pathos, where the children resolve to remember their parents warmly and get on with their lives, but by then, it is too late. The movie has zigged and zagged through a thousand Looney Tunes set-ups by that point, and we have stopped viewing the Baudelaire's as a real family confronted by dangers, but as pawns in a labrynthine chess game being played by Lemony Snicket and Brad Silberling.
To make matters worse, rather than resolve the numerous mysteries the film has set up, Silberling and screenwriter Robert Gorden have seen it fit to keep their ending completely open-ended. We get no information on the fate of the Baudelaires or Count Olaf, and don't get any conclusion on the investigation the children have conducted for the film's entire running time. I understand that more Snicket movies will likely follow (the book series already contians 11 volumes), but that is no excuse for failing to finish a movie at all. Even Jude Law sounds perplexed by his narration at the film's conclusion, letting us know that the Baudelaires will be fine because they have each other, but that he has no idea what it is that actually happens to them once the action of the film has ceased. This is unsatisfying in the extreme.
So, some good and some bad. If you have any interest in the film at all, I'd recommend seeing it in theaters, where its visual splendor will not be lost on you. The children sitting around me really didn't seem all that captivated by the movie, except when Jim Carrey was on-screen hamming it up, but this could be as much a product of sugar overload as a failure on the part of the filmmaking. I enjoyed the movie, but would be loathe to rewatch it any time soon. Like the first Potter film, it provides workmanlike entertainment with the promise of greater things to come.