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Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004) Print E-mail
Friday, 17 December 2004
When “Lord of the Rings” and the Harry Potter movies did great business, Hollywood executives sent underlines to scour library and bookstore shelves, seeking out the Next Big Thing. It had to be fantasy, it had to be published in multiple volumes, and it had to be popular. One of these desired products was a series of novels about a beleaguered family of orphans, the Baudelaire children, written by “Lemony Snicket” (the pseudonym of Daniel Handler).

Initially, Scott Rudin was to produce and Barry Sonnenfeld to direct, not an unreasonable choice as the tone of the Snicket books is somewhat like that of Sonnenfeld’s pair of “Addams Family” movies. A good second choice would have been Tim Burton, but apparently he was busy elsewhere. But when Paramount balked at the budget, Rudin and Sonnenfeld left the project (but are listed as executive producers). Paramount then partnered with Dreamworks, and Brad Silberling was hired to direct. Is it surprising that the final budget was considerably higher than the one Rudin and Sonnenfeld wanted?

The money went to Jim Carrey and the amazing sets by production designer Rick Heinrichs. They’re highly stylized, quaintly grim rather than oppressive, and perfectly in tone with the film. Or rather, with what must have been the intended tone of the film. The movie actually has no tone. And no pace, either. It’s not slow, but every scene is paced at precisely the same tempo as every other scene; there’s no rising action, no falling action—it just marches along at its unvarying pace.

The idea is to present a black comedy for kids involving murder, suicide, man-eating monsters and, as the title promises, a series of unfortunate events. But it just doesn’t work, and the audience I saw it with—which was full of children—rarely reacted to anything on screen. You don’t take anything memorable away with you; there’s not a single “you gotta see THIS!” scene, without which fantasies on this scale almost always falter.

The Baudelaire children, Klaus (Liam Aiken, Violet (Emily Browning and Sunny (the tag-teaming twins Kara and Shelby Hoffman), live happily with their parents in a lavish mansion. Violet is extremely inventive, Klaus reads a lot and remembers everything, and baby Sunny bites things with her four teeth. But then a fire (never seen) destroys the mansion and kills the Baudelaire parents, leaving their children orphans. Well meaning social worker Mr. Poe (Timothy Spall) whisks them off to stay with their extravagantly theatrical uncle, Count Olaf (Carrey).

He works them like her wicked stepmother worked Cinderella, sneering at their labors, not allowing them any fun. He has a little troupe of followers, and, we soon, learn, he intends to finance his next theatrical endeavor from the fortune inherited by the Baudelaire children. If this means killing them, so be it; he abandons them in a car in front of an oncoming train, but the inventive kids figure a way out of their pickle.
They do convince Mr. Poe, at least temporarily, that Count Olaf is not to be trusted, so he takes them to another uncle, Monty (Billy Connolly), who lives in a wonderful house full of snakes and other animals. The story is narrated by Lemony Snicket (voice of Jude Law), as he’s writing in his room inside a giant clock. He tells us that he wishes he could tell us everything worked out fine, but it didn’t. Count Olaf reappears, and soon the children are taken to yet another relative, Aunt Josephine (Meryl Streep).

She was once a lively person, but has been reduced to a quaking bundle of paranoia. She’s afraid of toasters, doorknobs and that the refrigerator will topple over on someone. Her house is built on stilts on a cliff at the edge of the sea, which is alive with eel-sized leeches. She’s also afraid of them.

But then something happens, and…. As Kurt Vonnegut used to say, and so it goes.

The script by Robert Gordon is remarkably bland and flat. It’s based on three of the Lemony Snicket books, “The Bad Beginning,” “The Reptile Room” and “The Wide Window.” But the joy of the books must lie in the writing style, and indeed the best aspect of the film, the one area in which the tone is just right, is in the narration. Jude Law is amusingly restrained, understating each successive horror. What we see, unfortunately, is only occasionally interesting, and then mostly because of the production design, costumes and makeup. (Carrey’s makeup, by the great Bill Corso, is phenomenal.)

What’s being sought, all too earnestly, is a mood of droll whimsy, or whimsical drollery. But a lot of that needs to be expressed in characterization, timing and performance—and the movie is weak in these areas. Each character is exactly the same at the end as at the beginning. The Baudelaire children are mildly brave throughout, never expressing any sorrow even to each other. Olaf is, to say the least, colorful, but he’s so extravagant that it’s hard to see him as an actual threat. Carrey’s supple athleticism is a treat to watch, as is the great fun he has with the makeup and costumes, but Olaf as a character just is not very interesting.

Meryl Streep is very game in her portrayal of frightened Aunt Josephine, but again, what you first see is all you ever get. Even an actor as talented and hard-working as Streep cannot summon a characterization out of a script that gives her only one trait: paranoia. We don’t give a damn about her, even when she comes to her predictably sorry end.

That, in brief, is the real problem with the movie: it’s all style, no substance. There’s nothing here to engage us emotionally, merely intellectually. It’s easy to see why Barry Sonnenfeld was the first choice as director; his handling of equally macabre elements in the “Addams Family” movies was deft and witty. Instead, we have Brad Silberling, who I’m sure is a good person, kind to his mother and kittens, but who does not, on the basis of this movie, have a clue as to how to present this kind of material. His two previous movies were “Casper,” not exactly a world-beater, and “Moonlight Mile,” a project that meant a lot to him. But he still couldn’t get past standard movie stereotypes and clichés, and the movie deflated. (But it’s probably the reason why one of its stars, Dustin Hoffman, has a cameo in “Series of Unfortunate Events.”) It’s hard to know who to blame when a very important clue, the word “impostor,” is misspelled (as “imposter”).

The opening scene is terrific; we first are told we’re about to see a jolly, song-filled fantasy comedy called “The Littlest Elf,” but are quickly set straight (by Snicket the narrator). And the first few scenes are just right, but a sour note begins to intrude. Baby Sunny can’t yet talk, but her babbling is “helpfully” translated occasionally—and she sounds distressingly like the ghastly robot Twiki in the “Buck Rogers” TV series. These cutaways are not to tell us what the baby is thinking, but to direct us as to how the filmmakers want US to be thinking. One sarcastic wisecrack follows another until you’re starting to glance at the theater exits. Fortunately, this when-in-doubt-cut-to-the-baby approach is eventually dropped.

There are some good visuals—our first sight of Count Olaf’s house, a horror on a hill, is under a bridge that’s dripping sinister welding spots. And there are lines, now and then, that are memorable. Olaf declares ringingly, “I will raise these orphans as if they are actually wanted.” He shows the Baudelaire children to their room, which is “where you’ll sleep—time permitting.”

It might have worked better had we followed Count Olaf rather than the three children; he’s the one who’s out DOING things. The children do not react, at least not until the last reel, and are those who are done TO, not those who do. Screenwriter Robert Gordon worked on “Galaxy Quest,” which was a lot of fun, and “Men in Black II,” which wasn’t, so it’s hard to get a grip on who’s mostly responsible for the limp quality of “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.”

But limp it is. Nonetheless, because it is so resolutely mock-grim, so unlike other movies aimed at children, including the Harry Potter movies (which are only intermittently grim-ish), this is likely to get some good reviews. And you may like it yourself; I’m not here to predict YOUR reaction, just to report on my own. To me, the film does not work. For you—well, you can make up your own mind.

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