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Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events   B

Paramount Pictures

Year Released: 2004
MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Brad Silberling
Writer: Robert Gordon (based on the books by Lemony Snicket)
Cast: Jim Carrey, Liam Aiken, Emily Browning, Timothy Spall, Catherine O'Hara, Billy Connolly, Meryl Streep, Jude Law.

Review by Rob Vaux

Like all good fairy tales, Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events knows how terrifying the world can be when seen through the eyes of a child. It's dangerous and foreboding, full of trolls under bridges and wolves disguised as grandmothers. What's worse, grown-ups are usually oblivious to such terrors, refusing to see the monsters in the closet no matter how hard their sons and daughters plead. You're all alone in a hostile universe, the stories tell us, and if you wish to avoid a messy end, you had better keep your wits about you.

A Series of Unfortunate Events makes a very entertaining show out of this unpleasant truth, tickling our funny bones without losing its essential Edward Gorey heart. Fitful and episodic, it nevertheless strikes a pitch-perfect tone in its tale of three resourceful orphans and the unibrowed misanthrope who wants to kill them for their inheritance money. It's dark, but not scary; whimsical but not saccharine; pessimistic but believing quite firmly in the power of self-reliance. There are worse messages a family can take from the multiplex, and when it comes in a handsome package like this one does, it can be mighty hard to resist.

The presence of Jim Carrey could have been a potential deal-killer. Based on a series of children's stories, A Series of Unfortunate Events has a built-in fan base, some of whom may be leery of placing Carrey in the role of the villainous Count Olaf. But it proves a remarkably sturdy fit. Olaf is essentially an evil ham, a bombastic actor who covets the fortune of the orphaned Baudelaire children. His is the villainy of Snidely Whiplash, all sinister cackles and cunning disguises made scarier by the fact that only the kids can see through him. Carrey, no small ham himself, embraces the role with gusto. His expected mugs and buffoonery pepper every appearance (some more successfully than others) and yet he keeps the character's cold soul intact, never subsuming Olaf beneath a star persona cop-out. His Grinch would have greatly benefited from the oozing menace on display here.

Director Brad Silberling is also smart enough to put Carrey on the sidelines at points, using the children as his centerpiece. The three Baudelaires -- inventor Violet (Emily Browning), bookworm Klaus (Liam Aiken), and beaver-like baby Sunny (Kara and Shelby Hoffman) -- find themselves in precarious straits when their parents are killed in a mysterious fire. They are officiously bounced from guardian to guardian -- some benevolent, some incompetent, but all universally blind to the threat of Olaf and his troupe of followers. Most of the Baudelaires' would-be protectors come to bad ends at their hands, leaving the children alone to face hurricanes, carnivorous leeches, and a plethora of dangers that the gods keep in reserve for desperate waifs on the run. Olaf periodically reappears, ready to dislodge what brief sanctuary they can find, but his outstretched grasp is equally effective in its absence as in its presence. Aided by sympathetic performances from his youthful leads, Silberling allows them -- not Carrey -- to guide us through the film's dark wonders.

And those wonders carry their share of the load. Humming with imagination and energy, the production conveys a seductively gloomy world of storm clouds and clockwork gadgets. Though a few untidy plot threads are left hanging about -- specifically Olaf's origins and the mysterious society to which the Baudelaire parents apparently belonged -- it remains sumptuous and engaging, a fine foil of a background to test the children's mettle. As bleak as it is, Silberling never allows it to become depressing or woeful. Indeed, it's often quite funny, displaying the same shivery wit as the Addams Family movies (whose director Barry Sonnenfeld has executive producer credit here). The evoked perils are clever and harrowing, thanks to strong work from production designer Rick Heinrichs, and Thomas Newman's quirky score keeps a constant spring in the movie's step. While the structure grows repetitive and the final message is perhaps less gothic than it ought to be, A Series of Unfortunate Events always stays true to its premise.

Comparisons have been made to Tim Burton's work, though I don't think that's quite apt here. Burton's affinity for the lonely outsider is too maudlin for this film's cynicism, and I fear he would have softened our much-needed distain for the delightfully nasty Olaf. Its closest relative is actually Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter, another fairy tale about wee ones pursued by an unscrupulous blackheart. Like that earlier film, A Series of Unfortunate Events knows that children see things that the rest of us never will, and it respects the purity of their vision. Backed by Snicket's prose, Silberling and company have crafted an admirable addition to the pantheon of wicked stepmothers, witch's curses, and the brave clever youths whom they are constantly threatening to devour.

Review published 12.14.2004.

* * *

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