Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events
M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   G A R Y   J O H N S O N

Like the Harry Potter series, Daniel Handler's Lemony Snicket novels share a preoccupation with dark and sinister forces. But unlike the Harry Potter series, the Lemony Snicket novels aren't centered around one location. Hogwarts School becomes a defining element of the Harry Potter series as well as a limitation, as the vast majority of events must take place in its vicinity. And likewise, while the stuff of magic--spells, wands, wizards' hats, robes, etc.--is definitely an attractive element for readers of the Harry Potter books, it also tends to confine the books to a particular kind of storytelling in which young sorcerers must battle trolls, dragons, and other dangerous beasts. In contrast, the Lemony Snicket novels are free to go anywhere, which opens up the series to a larger world and a much greater variety of storytelling possibilities.

Brad Silberling's film adaptation of the Lemony Snicket series takes advantage of this wider variety of possibilities, drawing upon three books in the series (The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, and The Wide Window) and moving its story through three different main locations: Count Olaf's wonderfully decrepit mansion, Uncle Monty's home laboratory with its serpent motifs, and Aunt Josephine's seaside home perched precariously on the edge of a cliff. These different settings bring their own unique and extravagant peculiarities.

Silberling comes to Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events primarily by way of television, where he directed episodes for a wide variety of shows, including Doogie Howser M.D., Cop Rock, L.A. Law, NYPD Blue, Judging Amy, and Felicity. He landed his first feature film in 1995 with Casper (yes, the "friendly ghost"), which he followed in 1998 with City of Angels (starring Meg Ryan and Nicolas Cage and based on Wim Wender's Wings of Desire) and in 2000 with Moonlight Mile (starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, and Susan Sarandon). Nothing in Silberling's resume indicated anything like Lemony Snicket was in the offing. Casper has its obvious elements of the fantastic, but it's quite tame and ordinary compared to Lemony Snicket.

Lemony Snicket crushes these past efforts from Silberling, so it's tempting to start scanning through the crew list and checking the past credits of the behind-the-camera talent. Several connections jump out immediately, with executive producers Scott Rudin and Barry Sonnenfeld having been involved in the Men in Black and Addams Family movies; producers Laurie MacDonald and Walter F. Parkes produced Men in Black; cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki lensed the marvelously looking (but otherwise disastrous) Cat in the Hat as well as Sleepy Hollow; and most significantly, production designer Rick Heinrichs worked on Sleepy Hollow, The Nightmare Before Christmas, The Fisher King, and Edward Scissorhands. Likewise art director John Dexter worked on Sleepy Hollow and Planet of the Apes and set decorator Cheryl Carasik worked on Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands. In other words, this is a crew with extensive experience in some of the most visually imaginative movies of the past 20 years. And in almost all the cases, these are movies with a dark mise en scene that utilizes a restricted color palette and generous dollops of black and grey. So Lemony Snicket is undoubtedly an example of collaborative Hollywood filmmaking at its best, with past experience in Barry Sonnenfeld movies and Tim Burton movies helping to shape the look of Lemony Snicket. However, it'd be a great disservice to Silberling to suggest that he's just along for the ride; this movie contains superb storytelling. Both Sonnenfeld and Burton frequently struggle at storytelling, but Silberling has crafted a marvelously engaging approach to Robert Gordon's screenplay. (Gordon also wrote MIB 2.)

Among the special effects and the dark, imposing sets, Silberling doesn't let his trio of protagonists get lost. After their parents die in a fire that destroys the family's home, the children (heirs to their parents' wealth) are taken to live with a relative they've never met before--Count Olaf (Jim Carrey). His motivations immediately become clear: "I shall raise these orphas as if they were actually wanted ... where do I sign for the fortune?" Soon afterwards, the children discover Count Olaf plans to kill them so he can claim the inheritance--which leads to a thrilling sequence in which the children are trapped in a car sitting on railroad tracks. They must use their wits in order to get out of this fix before the train arrives.

Among the awe-inspiring sets, Silberling emphasizes the small stature of his lead characters, giving us several camera shots that accentuate their meager status among the forces that surround them. This underplayed approach has the effect of increasing our sympathy even more for the orphans, who aren't exactly loquacious. They don't act cute and cavort for our attention. Rather the Beaudelaire children are given specific capabilities that to a large degree define them: the girl is an inventor, the boy is a bookworm, and the toddler is great at biting things. You don't really get to know the Beaudelaire children the way you get to know Harry Potter and his friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger. Rather, the focus in Lemony Snicket is on the adult relatives: Jim Carrey as Count Olaf, Billy Connolly as Uncle Monty, and Meryl Streep as Aunt Josephine. The children exist primarily as a means of bringing us to these larger-than-life characters. Jim Carrey in particular is allowed great reign and plenty of make-up. This is his opportunity to turn in a Lon Chaney-style performance, for he also doubles as Uncle Monty's lab assistant (Count Olaf in disguise) and kindly sea captain named Captain Sham (also Count Olaf in disguise) who woos Aunt Josephine. In case anyone might miss the Chaney connection, the movie strikes this point clearly by placing a tabloid newspaper in Carrey's hands during a crucial scene: who is on the cover? None other than Lon Chaney himself.

While the two older children, Klaus (Liam Aiken) and Violet (Emily Browning), are probably on screen more than anyone else, it's Carrey and Streep who linger in memory. Carrey gets free range to ham it up, as Count Olaf is a rather self-satisfied, bad actor, so mugging and cavorting perfectly fits into the characterization. And Streep seems to be having a blast. In dramatic roles, she can be so intense that she's a bit intimidating, but here she creates a wonderfully daffy characterization as a doddering old aunt who sees danger everywhere. In comparison, Billy Connolly's character is much less compelling, so he pales next to Carrey and Streep.

Regardless of the high-profile leading actors, the real stars of Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events are the wonderful visuals (definitely inspired by Tim Burton) and the deft storytelling that creates the enchanting aura of tall tales and wickedly imaginative lies. This is a marvelous movie and I look forward to further installments in the series.

P.S. Stick around for the movie's final credits. You won't see anything earth shaking; however, the cut-out designs are reminiscent of artist Edward Gorey's deliciously creepy pen-and-ink drawings and show the children fleeing from Count Olaf through a variety of dangerous situations. Great stuff.

[rating: 3.5 of 4 stars]

Distributor Web site: Paramount Pictures
Movie Web site: Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events



Photos: © 2004 Paramount Pictures Corporation and Dreamworks LLC. All rights reserved.