Movie Review: Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events
By Robert K. Elder, Chicago Tribune Staff Writer
Dear reader, if you've come here to read the scandalous scribblings of a disgruntled critic, you've come to the wrong place.
If, however, you've come here to discover how a series of unfortunate events have paradoxically created a cinematic achievement of whimsically bleak comedy, then you've come to the right place.
In "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events" (a dauntingly long title that encapsulates author Daniel Handler's affection for literary asides and flowery language), director Brad Silberling and screenwriter Robert Gordon breathe life into a demented universe of jubilant schadenfreude - a word meaning "pleasure in the misery of others."
The others, in this case, are the piteous Baudelaire orphans: inventor Violet (Emily Browning), bookworm Klaus (Liam Aiken) and sharp-toothed infant Sunny (twins Kara and Shelby Hoffman). With the sudden demise of their beloved parents, the Baudelaire children find themselves in the care of the monstrous Count Olaf (Jim Carrey), a cruel and vainglorious thespian bent on stealing the Baudelaire fortune. The diabolical Count sees no moral obstruction in arranging an untimely end for the Baudelaire trio, thereby leaving himself as the sole heir to their collective college funds.
If you love the grimmest of Brothers Grimm fairy tales, "Shockheaded Peter" or Edward Gorey's tales of ill-fated curtain-tuggers, then by all means continue reading. (And if you've suffered through my self-consciously ornate prose this long, then you're probably in on the joke and will get along famously with this motion picture.)
"Snicket" takes place in that familiar storybook zip code where children are more intelligent than the adults, who would be a great deal smarter if they would only bend an ear to those under 5 feet tall. On this matter, all the actors playing the Baudelaire children aptly embody their sharp-eyed, worldly characters. Levelheaded and resourceful, they are unheard voices of reason except for the baby, who chews Scrabble tiles for leisure.
Conversely, comedian Carrey hams it up with high abandon as Count Olaf, chomping scenery while being careful not to obscure the orphans' story. The actor exercised similar restraint this year's deliciously mind-bending "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," as he blended into, not eclipsed, the complex tale.
But "restraint" is not the right word for Carrey's performance. Perhaps "psychoneurotic," "criminally mad" or "deliriously unhinged" serve as better descriptors. In any case, Carrey has reinvented the Count as far more colorful, more menacingly splendiferous than he appears in book form. This happens to be a good thing, as the Count Olaf of Lemony Snicket (a.k.a. Dan Handler) tends to be simply a poor actor infected with evil. Here, Carrey doesn't declaw the villain in the service of humor - he simply flashes a few teeth.
Again, dear reader, the silly genius of "Lemony Snicket" doesn't spring from a single performance. Its visually arresting screen presence engages the significant talents of production designer Rick Heinrichs, previously employed by Tim Burton on "Sleepy Hollow" and "Planet of the Apes." Heinrichs' all-encompassing ocular candy can swallow an audience whole, thereby increasing the movie's verisimilitude - a word here meaning "fake reality."
The final part of this movie's enchantment lies in its solutions to contradictions - like how to imbue murder, larceny and the general discomfort of its heroes into what essentially advertises itself as entertainment for tykes. On that issue, much of the "Lemony Snicket" mayhem takes place off camera. Other times, Jude Law (playing fictional narrator Snicket) interrupts the action just as something particularly nasty happens.
Even if, in the end, "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events" abandons its dark cloud for a silver lining, it's still exceptionally clever, hilariously gloomy and bitingly subversive. You have been warned.
"Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events"
Directed by Brad Silberling; screenplay by Robert Gordon, based on the books by Daniel Handler; photographed by Emmanuel Lubezki; production design by Rick Heinrichs; music by Thomas Newman; edited by Dylan Tichenor; produced by Laurie MacDonald and Walter F. Parkes. A Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks Distribution release; opens Friday, Dec. 17. Running time: 1:47. MPAA rating: PG (thematic elements, scary situations and brief language).
Count Olaf - Jim Carrey
Aunt Josephine - Meryl Streep
Voice of Lemony Snicket - Jude Law
Violet Baudelaire - Emily Browning
Klaus Baudelaire - Liam Aiken
Sunny Baudelaire - Kara and Shelby Hoffman