This much can be said for the movie version of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events: Its villain, Count Olaf, just might be Jim Carrey’s finest screen role. A bitter, would-be master thespian who delights in donning ridiculous disguises and adopting funny accents, he doesn’t seem that far removed from what Carrey might be like had he not hit cinematic paydirt and become a homicidal has-been instead.
The rest of the movie, however, isn’t quite up to Carrey’s level — which is a shame, because most of the ingredients are there. Production designer Rick Heinrichs has a history with both Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam, and it shows. The cast is laden with talent, including Meryl Streep, Billy Connolly, Timothy Spall, and Catherine O’Hara. The source books — written by Daniel Handler under the satirical, ersatz-Edgar Allan Poe persona of Lemony Snicket — feature a mordant kind of humor in the tradition of Roald Dahl and Edward Gorey. Screenwriter Robert Gordon wrote the spot-on sci-fi satire Galaxy Quest, so no questioning his credentials here.
There are two obvious weak links. The most immediately apparent is the onscreen appearance of Snicket himself, embodied by James Henderson and voiced by Jude Law. Law simply isn’t right for a Poe type; he sounds way too reassuring and kind, even as he tells us what a sinister and unpleasant film we’re in for (he doth protest too much on that score). Vincent Price would be ideal, but since he’s dead, someone like Christopher Lee should have been called. Even Lee’s less successful sound-alike friend Douglas Dunning would have been a step up.
Worse than the selection of Law is the choice of director. Brad Silberling’s girlfriend was murdered in 1989, and he’s spent his entire feature directorial career channeling that experience into his art (Casper, City of Angels, and Moonlight Mile). Silberling wants to reassure us that everything’s all right, and that life can go on after losing a loved one, but what’s required here is the sort of demented SOB who can laugh at people falling to their deaths. Tim Burton was otherwise occupied, but executive producer Barry Sonnenfeld would have been perfect — his Addams Family movies nailed the tone that Silberling doesn’t seem capable of properly understanding.
A prime example of this lack of cojones can be seen in the movie’s opening sequence, a fake-out intro to a Rankin-Bass-type production called The Littlest Elf. Everyone in the audience knows that a wicked punch line is coming, and when one of the happy cartoon elves is seen holding a hunter’s rifle, we’re expecting him to brandish it and go on a killing spree, or something twisted like that. Instead, there’s a clap of thunder, and things go dark. That’s all. Cut to Lemony Snicket sitting at a typewriter. Oooh, scary.
For the sake of those who don’t have children and haven’t set foot inside a bookstore recently, the Series of Unfortunate Events books begin with the orphaning of three siblings: science whiz Violet Baudelaire (Emily Browning, acceptable), bookworm Klaus Baudelaire (Liam Aiken, miscast and/or misdirected), and bite-happy baby Sunny (Kara and Shelby Hoffman, with amusingly subtitled baby talk). Initially sent to live with demented Count Olaf, who covets their immense family fortune, the trio of kids is shunted in each book to the home of a new relative, where Olaf inevitably shows up in disguise, ruins everything, kills the relative, and has his plan thwarted only to escape and show up again in the following book. The first three books have been incorporated into the film, with a couple of events added by screenwriter Gordon and inserted from later books. Gordon’s best addition, which involves a car stranded on the railroad tracks, is perhaps truer to the twisted spirit of the books than some of the more straightforward adapted scenes.
One last nitpick: How come the children are American, yet all their relatives are British?
Right. Enough griping. There’s plenty about the movie that does work: the entire sequence featuring Meryl Streep as Aunt Josephine, a grammar-obsessed agoraphobic widow who lives in a house on stilts teetering over a cliff above a lake full of deadly leeches. The use of M.C. Escher artwork for the carpet pattern in the Reptile Room. The cartoon that plays over the end credits (easily the best thing in the film).
And of course Carrey, magnificent not only as Olaf but also as his two alter egos: nebbishy would-be herpetologist Stefano and the Popeye-on-crack caricature Captain Sham. Whether affecting a pretentious accent in order to pronounce the word “surprise” as “supreeeeze,” delivering a uniquely creepy version of The Rock’s raised eyebrow (unibrow, in this case), or ad-libbing such pretentious toss-offs as “Roast beef — it’s the Swedish word for beef that is roasted,” it’s his show all the way. Now, if he can get a director who measures up for the inevitable sequel, we could have ourselves something a long way from unfortunate indeed.