© 2004 Ray Wong
Based on the Daniel Handler (writing as Lemony Snicket) children’s books The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, and The Wide Widow, A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS is a surprisingly dark and dreary family film for the holidays.
The story begins when the Baudelaire children become instant orphans after a mysterious fire destroys their stately home and wealthy, globetrotting parents. Violet (Browning) is a 14-year-old, imaginative inventor whose motto is: “There is always something.” The middle child, Klaus (Aiken), is an avid reader, and he remembers everything he learns. Infant Sunny (Hoffman) is expressive and curious, with an ability to bite and chew through materials.
Since there are no instructions left by the Baudelaires, the estate executor Mr. Poe (Spall) must send the children to their closest relative, Count Olaf (Carrey), who is an eccentric, diabolical actor. Olaf makes the children do all the chores in his derelict mansion and treats them like animals; his only reason to keep the children around is their inheritance. Soon the children find out Olaf’s plans to kill them for their money. They try to tell Mr. Poe but the oblivious fool does not take their words seriously. Thinking that Olaf is unfit as the guardian, Mr. Poe sends the children to their Uncle Monty (Connolly), who is a herpetologist living with a great assortment of snakes and vipers.
Just when Violet, Klaus and Sunny think they’ve finally found a home and a nice guardian, Olaf shows up, disguised as an Italian assistant to Monty. The children immediately recognize Olaf, but the adults continue to be ignorant. A series of unfortunate events later, Olaf escapes and the children are once again sent off to another relative – Aunt Josephine (Streep) who is afraid of everything. Other unfortunate events happen and as determined as Olaf is to inherit their fortune, the children are determined to survive and find out the mystery behind their parents’ deaths.
Carrey (BRUCE ALMIGHTY) gets top billing here. He is usually a master chameleon, whose ability to transform himself and contort his face and body is his trademark. However, I actually find his portrayal of the cartoonish villain two-dimensional and, at times, excruciating. He is fun to watch at the beginning just because the character is so strange and evil, but after the first third of the movie, his performance becomes increasing monotonic and repetitive. I blame it partially on his skin-deep character. On the other hand, Streep (THE MANCHURIAN CANIDATE) is delicious as the phobiaphobic aunt. Her colorful personality and tragic demise are amusing and troubling at the same time.
The three young actors who play the Baudelaire children do very well, especially when they’re together. Browning (DARKNESS FALLS) exudes calmness and authority as the eldest sister. Aiken (ROAD TO PERDITION) is very charming and resourceful, and his character grows the most during the film. Newcomer Hoffman is probably one of the cutest and expressive infant actors in the business. The director did a great job getting such performance out of her.
The rest of cast is adequate in relatively small roles. Spall (LAST SAMURAI) is trustworthy, although not very reliable, as Mr. Poe. Connolly (LAST SAMURAI) is wonderfully affectionate as the doomed Monty. O’Hara, Coolidge and Guzman all show up for their amusing but miniscule parts. Law (CLOSER) does a marvelous voice-over as Lemony Snicket. But an unaccredited cameo by Dustin Hoffman is a distraction.
Under director Silberling’s (MOONLIGHT MILE) skillful hand, the film is a beauty to behold. It is rich in colors and fantastic imageries. I suspect that everything is done in a studio and with computers, but the production value is high – the sets, the sceneries, the props, the costumes, the makeup, the architecture… everything is top-notch. However, Silberling could have picked up the pace in various places with tighter editing and fewer lingering, Tim Burton-esque shots.
Writer Gordon (GALAXY QUEST) combines plots and elements from three of the eleven Lemony Snicket books to create a relatively cohesive story. Surprisingly though, given the fantasy elements of the film, the over all tone is rather somber and lethargic. We can’t help but feel that something is missing. The plot also becomes increasingly frustrating as Olaf continues to fool the adults while the children can’t do anything to deflect him. We can’t help but yell, within us: “Do something already.” For example, Violet has an out of character moment during the climax, when she should be doing something instead of going through with her ordeal.
The good thing is we know we care about the children. The bad thing is it feels sadistic. The whole film has a sadistic, morose, hopeless feeling to it. It also doesn’t feel real. While the adults drop like flies, somehow we know the children will be okay, so there’s no real sense of worry when it comes to their fate. With such a great production and talented cast, it is unfortunate that the story doesn’t quite live up to the rest.
Stars: Jim Carrey, Meryl Streep, Jude Law, Emily Browning, Liam Aiken, Kara Hoffman, Timothy Spall, Billy Connolly, Catherine O’Hara, Luis Guzman, Jennifer Coolidge
Director: Brad Silberling
Writer: Robert Gordon (based on books by Daniel Handler as Lemony Snicket)
Distributor: Paramont, DreamWorks
MPAA Rating: PG for themes, scary moments and brief language
Script – 5
Performance – 7
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 8
Editing – 7
Production – 9
Total – 6.9 out of 10