This film lives up entirely to its title. The events are here: death of
parents by fire, 3 siblings turned into victims of their closest relative,
deception, escapes, disguises, greed, murder attempted and accomplished, evil
genius, egomania, abduction, forced marriage and more wickedness than we
could find in a barrel of snakes.
It also has the genius of a multi-disguised Jim Carrey, the narrative voice
(and silhouetted presence) of a finely articulated Jude Law, and a basis in a
best-selling series of books, 18 million copies of which have been sold since
1999. The movie has seamless effects, inspired inventiveness, and a serious
dramatic problem. More on that below.
The Baudelaire kids are Violet (Emily Browning) who, at age 14 is the eldest;
Klaus (Liam Aiken), 12; and baby sister Sunny (Kara and Shelby Hoffman).
Each one has a special ability. Violet is a juvenile inventor who can come
up with solutions to problems that outrival the best of MacGyver. Klaus has
a photographic mind for everything he reads (like 15 books on sailing) and a
curiosity that's insatiable. Little Sunny, who likes to bite on things, has
the jaws of a titanium clamp.
They are rich. Very rich. They live in castle-like comfort on their
parents' estate. Until, that is, it mysteriously burns to the ground. The
Baudelaire parents perish; the children survive only to be placed by
blunder-headed beaurocrat Mr. Poe (Timothy Spall) into the care of Count Olaf
(Carrey), whom he considers their closest living relative. He seems to be
under the impression that this means geographical proximity and the count
lives just a few blocks away.
This proves to be a blunder of potentially lethal consequences for the poor
orphans with a sizable fortune. Olaf makes no bones about his true
intentions, which is to eradicate the trio and claim their inheritance. His
methods are as obvious as his avarice, starting with trapping the kids in his
locked car, on the railroad tracks, as the train is bearing down.
Ever-resourceful Violet puts a few items together from what's in the car to
This attempt on the kids' lives doesn't sit well with Mr. Poe, who may now be
taking more seriously their misgivings about Count Olaf's true intentions.
(Duh!) Poe then places his charges into the care of python-scarved Uncle
Monty (Billy Connolly), weird, but a far more sympathetic relation. But when
this snake-loving Scotsman dies under strange circumstances, the kids go to
off-the-edge Aunt Josephine (Meryl Streep), a paranoidal neurotic who lives
in a house with a rickety foundation on the side of a vertical cliff, giving
new meaning to the term, precarious. But Olaf proves to be a relentless
threat, popping up under one pursuasive disguise after another, and a series
of artless stratagems to grab some spoils.
Director Brad Silberling's and writer Robert Gordon's version of Daniel
Handler's first three Lemony Snicket books makes so many leaps of logic and
doltish character choices, they strain an adult's ability to enjoy the tale
and appreciate its source. Mr. Poe's supposed ignorance of what would be
evident to a moron, for example, is a simplistically caricatured and
carelessly rendered device to move the story to its various episodes. On the
other hand, there are touches of humor that work well, such as the onscreen
translation of infant Sunny's sweet gurglings--a language unto itself.
But such rays of sunshine don't make its dark and nightmarish fantasy go
away, and it might not be such a fun time for the teens and tots in the
theatre. The "problem" is that the true hero of the piece, the dominating
character, is the villain. With the three underage victims' requirements to
be simply to courageously escape time after time, it's the ubiquitous Count
Olaf who moves the drama and demands the attention. He's the 3 ton elephant
in the frame, and he's a study in undiluted, flamboyant treachery. Against
this guy, Scrooge is a role model.
Bill Corso's makeup and costumes by Colleen Atwood and Donna O'Neal are part
of an outstanding visual package that includes the world class work of
cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki ("The Assassination of Richard Nixon", The Cat in the Hat),
and the rich and clever production design by Rick Heinrichs. But, compared
to other movies with a similar literary pedigree, say "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of
Azkaban," this fairy tale will leave some of us shaking our heads
thinking that the most unfortunate of the events is the shadowy adaptation of
the author's creations and the fact that we didn't leave the theatre for a
happier film when narrator Snicket wickedly advises us to do in the prologue.
It's hard to imagine that a series of episodes constructed around such an
undisguised demon -- even with the Carrey portfolio of rubber faces -- will
amount to record-breaking support. But long lines at the boxoffice seem
inevitable, made up of the legions of Snicket book fans, the lovers of Carrey
schtick, and admirers of technical achievement. For all my cautions, though,
I'm not predicting failure.
[To fans of the books: This is a review of the movie only. The
reviewer has not read the books and therefore judges the movie in terms of
what's on screen.
~~ Jules Brenner