A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004)



(director: Brad Silberling; screenwriters: Robert Gordon/based on the books “The Bad Beginning,” “The Reptile Room” and “The Wide Window” by Daniel Handler; cinematographer: Emmanuel Lubezki; editor: Michael Kahn; music: Thomas Newman; cast: Jim Carrey (Count Olaf), Liam Aiken (Klaus Baudelaire), Emily Browning (Violet Baudelaire), Kara Hoffman and Shelby Hoffman (Sunny Baudelaire), Jude Law (Lemony Snicket), Timothy Spall (Mr. Poe), Catherine O’Hara (Justice Strauss), Billy Connolly (Uncle Monty), Meryl Streep (Aunt Josephine), Luis Guzman (Bald Man), Cedric the Entertainer (Cop); Runtime: 108; MPAA Rating: PG; producers: Laurie MacDonald/Walter F. Parkes/Jim van Wyck; Paramount Pictures; 2004)

“What ultimately spoiled the fun was Mr. Carrey’s unbridled egotistical performance.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Director Brad Silberling (“Casper”) children’s family tale is based on the offbeat children’s books “The Bad Beginning,” “The Reptile Room” and “The Wide Window” by Daniel Handler (the San Franciscan writes under the pen name of Lemony Snicket); Robert Gordon is the screenwriter. This overlong production with the overlong title, is a morosely humored but entertaining tale that supposedly captures the spirit of the 3 books without capturing its irony (unfortunately the film lacked subtlety, everything is loudly declared and accomplished without suspense). It pits a hammy Jim Carrey, mugging it up for the camera while unchecked, as he appears in several disguises. Carrey is Count Olaf, the conceited, greedy and dangerous arch villain, who is trying to steal the inheritance of three unfortunate well-mannered innocent children whose wealthy parents died when their mansion was burned down by an arsonist. The resourceful Baudelaire children include the 14-year-old inventor, Violet (Emily Browning), the extraordinary reader with the photographic memory, the 12-year-old Klaus (Liam Aiken), and the infant biter of hard objects who shrieks out words that no one can understand until they are translated by subtitles, Sunny (the twins Kara and Shelby Hoffman). The kids give up trying to talk to the unresponsive adults about their problems from Count Olaf and by themselves aim to fend off their evil guardian.

The author, Lemony Snicket, appears in the background and is voiced by Jude Law as narrator.

After a false opening about a happy elf tale the author, in silhouette and unrecognizable as he’s working on a manual typewriter, stops the movie to tell us that was a mistake. This is a bleak tale about bad things that can happen to good people, just the way it’s in real life. After watching the happy Baudelaire children function so well when their parents were alive, we quickly see how their lives change forever when they receive bad news of their parent’s demise as told to them by the clueless but well-meaning Mr. Poe (Timothy Spall), the banker executor of the Baudelaire estate. He takes the three orphans to live with their closest relative, Count Olaf, that is in distance–he’s only 37 blocks away. The mean-spirited Olaf, a bad theater actor, immediately plots to eliminate the kids for their fortune, as he locks them in a car left across the railroad tracks. But through Violet’s inventiveness the children avert the disaster and escape to live another day. This time the kids are placed in the guardianship of eccentric but kind-hearted Uncle Monty (Billy Connolly), a herpetologist. But Olaf in disguise upsets things and the children are next placed with the zany Aunt Josephine (Meryl Streep), whose run-down house hangs teetering on a cliff. Auntie is an insufferable grammarian, who suffers from irrational fears over such things as Realtors. While bad things happen to Auntie because of Olaf, the evil-doer makes another attempt to murder the kids and once again the kids show their initiative by sticking together and outsmarting their clever adult foe.

Silberling creates a children’s fairy tale story that has an odd blend of adult comedy (two of the children are named Klaus and Sunny, reminiscent of the Von Bulow affair where hubby Klaus was accused of fatally poisoning his wife Sunny) and an uninspiring stagy display of pretty looking designer-planned horror sets are in place as the usual scares are carried out through special effects.

What ultimately spoiled the fun was Mr. Carrey’s unbridled egotistical performance, where he hogged every scene to a point where he becomes more important than the story and after a while just a tiresome character. The Baudelaire kids acted straight in response to all the adults acting ditsy, and as a result their fine performances were drowned out and made supercilious by the cartoonish overacting of Carrey and his peers–which brought only a few laughs and even fewer cheers.