Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events
written by Robert Gordon from the novels by Daniel Handler
directed by Brad Silberling
starring Emily Browning, Liam Aiken and Jim Carrey
review by Stephen Notley
Early on Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events advises anybody who wants to see a movie about happy elves to leave. This is not a happy movie. Indeed, as it kicks off with three children finding out their home and parents have burned down, one could say it's a rather *un*happy movie. But at the same time, it's neither grim nor despairing; somehow it splits the middle and ends up at… curious.
The three children in question are the Baudelaires -- Violet, the premiere 14-year-old inventor in the world, Klaus, voracious reader, and infant Sunny, voracious biter. After they get their first bit of bad news they're treated to their second, which is that they're being transferred to the guardianship of hideous distant relative and actor Count Olaf, played by Jim Carrey. Olaf, of course, wants to murder them and take their inheritance, and one Unfortunate Event later the children bounce out of his care and into the home of another oddball distant relative, whereupon Olaf shows up in disguise and tries to get them, bouncing them on to the next oddball distant relative.
Lemony isn't structured so much as a movie as what it is, the first three books of a series; as a result the movie tends to break down into basic elements and set pieces. The books are A Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room and The Wide Window, so in the movie that translates into Jim Carrey at Olaf's Place, Billy Connolly in the Reptile Room, and Meryl Streep in the Big Rickety House On Stilts Hanging Over A Cliff.
The movie looks great. It's got the same visual audacity of films like The Cat in The Hat and the Grinch, but applied with taste instead of garish hate; it's nice to see a children's movie use a more subdued color palate instead of blaring every color on the wheel. Each new home and environment is bursting with decaying detail, whether it's Olaf's kitchen, junk everywhere, drawers full of rusty scissors and loose pasta, or Billy Connolly's herpetological heaven, two-headed cobras and three-eyed frogs and strangely cuddlesome snakes, or Meryl Streep's dim house of dangers, refrigerators that flatten and doorknobs that shatter. This movie is a set decorator's dream job.
Jim Carrey is pretty good as Olaf, a vain stick-man scarecrow of a figure, bristling with eyebrows and horny wisps of hair. It's a relatively restrained performance from Carrey, with little hooting or hollering, relying more on grinding teeth and big-eyed stares to hit his marks. Less entertaining, but not offensively so, are his other two incarnations as a stiff yellow-jacketed imposter herpetologist and a Popeyeish imposter sea dog. Billy Connolly as snakedraped Uncle Morty is avuncular and welcoming, and Meryl Streep is batty but likable as fearfilled Aunt Josephine.
Oft-ignored, shuttled about like baggage through all of this, these huge impressive sets and piles of props and over-the-top performances from big-name-actors, are the children themselves. Their scenes break down into one of two types: standing in a polite longsuffering row while an adult babbles on in front of them, and engineering ingenious escapes from Olaf-sponsored Unfortunate Events. With so much attention paid to all the elements surrounding them it's surprising they come through as strongly as they do, mostly due to nascent star Emily Browning as Violet. With her round face and steady eyes she holds the screen as effectively just standing there as Carrey no matter what he's doing.
So we've got interesting performances, fabulous set designs and a cool visual style, and yet somehow it's not clear if Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events really amounts to much. We approve of the children, admire their ingenuity, and are amused by the various geegaws and whatsits they encounter, but the film evades deep feeling, going neither for contrived happiness or serious pain. It's an intricate and amusing clockwork, a useful antidote to the typical cloying holiday entertainments, but it never quite catches fire on its own.