Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004) / Adventure-Comedy

MPAA Rated: PG for thematic elements, scary images and mild language
Running Time: 113 min.

Cast: Jim Carrey, Emily Browning, Liam Aiken, Meryl Streep, Billy Connolly, Timothy Spall, Catherine O'Hara, Kara Hoffman, Shelby Hoffman, Cedric the Entertainer, Luis Guzman, Jamie Harris, Jennifer Coolidge, Jane Adams, Craig Ferguson, Dustin Hoffman, Jude Law (voice)
Director: Brad Silberling
Screenplay: Robert Gordon (based on the books, "The Bad Beginning", "The Reptile Room", and "The Wide Window", by Daniel Handler (as Lemony Snicket))
Review published December 18, 2004

As someone who has read (well, "audiobooked") the first three entries into the Lemony Snicket (aka Daniel Handler) series, "A Series of Unfortunate Events", I could easily start off this review by complaining about the ill decision to combine the first three books for purposes of the movie.  I'll spare you the nitpicking, since most of you just want to know about the movie, and probably could care less about film vs. book comparisons.  I always try to review a film on its own terms, and not by how successfully it adheres to the source material, so I'll keep the comparison commentary to a minimum.

Orphaned after their parents perish in a fire that destroys the family home, the Baudelaire children -- Violet (Browning, Ghost Ship), Klaus (Aiken, Stepmom) and Sunny -- must find someone to take care of them until Violet turns 18, whereupon she will inherit the enormous family fortune.  They are taken to the home of the nearest relative, Count Olaf (Carrey, Bruce Almighty), who despises the brats, but sees a chance to gain that fortune for himself.  Stuck without anyone to help them, Olaf subjects the children to a series of schemes to snatch away the money, while they learn to fend for themselves.

Now that we have that my disclaimer and the premise of the way, I can just tell you that the movie, Lemony Snicket's  Series of Unfortunate Events is a wildly mixed bag, imaginative in appearance, but a bit of a mess underneath, whisking us from one set of eccentric characters to another and paying only the barest amount of attention to any of them.  We know just as little about these characters by the end of the film as we do the first moment they are introduced.  Count Olaf wants the Baudelaire fortune and will do anything to get it.  Violet like to invent things, Klaus likes to read books, and Sunny likes to bite hard on things or talk baby talk, which is translated for our convenience.  Olaf concocts schemes to put the children in danger, while they devise ways to get out of it.  That's it.  That's the movie.

In essence, the makers of this film don't concern themselves so much with the characters or plot, except to provide ample time for its superstar, Jim Carrey, to chew up as much scenery as possible.  He gets to don costumes and assume a few different amusing characters, while gesticulating wildly and making crazy eyes at the children.  As bad as that sounds, I actually did find him to be amusing in a fashion.  Not laugh out loud funny, but interesting to watch purely from a performance standpoint.

While the makers of the film let Carrey cut loose, most of the rest of the time was obviously spent trying to nail down the look of the movie, which seems to be an amalgamation of Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam, Edward Gorey, and the Harry Potter movies.  I'll admit, it does look fantastic, but the locales are a bit confusing, with its mix of American and British accents, as well as the time period not being very clear.  Again, emphasis is placed more on style than substance here, and the books themselves weren't very specific about anything, so the production designers had quite a bit of room to explore.

Perhaps my biggest gripe is that the makers of this movie, probably knowing that their creativity ends with the visual elements, throw plot developments one after the other.  The thinking here is that as long as they keep things busy, they don't have to invest any time in these wafer thin characters, or concocting real dialogue between them.  Indeed, evidence of this comes from the fact that the screenplay by Robert Gordon (Galaxy Quest, Men in Black II) adapts not one, not two, but the first three books into one episodic story.  With about a half hour to devote to any one of the books, only the barest of plot elements remain, leaving us little time to care or understand the motivations of anything before another development appears.  And yet, it's not confusing to follow -- it's barely more complex than a Road Runner/Coyote cartoon.

With little in the way of suspense or vested interest, all we can do is sit back and admire the visuals and Jim Carrey's manic performance, which just isn't really enough to make a series of movies on.  The ending of this film is perhaps the biggest botch-up job, as if they had no idea how to tie it up, except to give us half-baked conspiracy notions, and unlike the Lemony Snicket books, an attempt at a happy ending, which sort of goes against the premise of these children never really finding happiness.  With too much of one thing, and not enough of the other, A Series of Unfortunate Events offers only modest rewards for Carrey fans and those who enjoy production design over story.

Qwipster's rating:

2004 Vince Leo