Not so very long ago, on a gray, dark and thoroughly unpleasant weekend, I curled up in an armchair and read the first three Lemony Snicket books, which had arrived on my desk...
Not so very long ago, on a gray, dark and thoroughly unpleasant weekend, I curled up in an armchair and read the first three Lemony Snicket books, which had arrived on my desk under rather mysterious circumstances. (OK, so a publicist sent them, but it’s far more Snicket-y to imagine some sort of cloak-and-dagger transaction, with the black-wrapped books dumped on my doorstep in the dead of night.)
In reading these books, all as dark and delicious as chocolate, I found something unexpected: a celebration of language, storytelling and ingenuity, told in elegant prose by a reluctant narrator who kept warning me that the adventures of the three Baudelaire orphans were very, very unpleasant indeed.
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This narrator, who frequently alludes to his own colorful past (he once, we’re told in an aside, had business cards printed up saying he was an admiral in the French navy, in order to escape from an enemy’s castle), has a love of the macabre, made all the stronger by his constant protestations that perhaps we should all go away and read something nicer. And Violet, Klaus and Sunny, the three unfortunate children who must suffer a series of cruel fates (not to mention some perfectly dreadful meals), display marvelous resilience and a nicely understated sibling bond.
So does “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events,” the movie directed by Brad Silberling and based on the first three books in the series, live up to the books’ high standards? Well, yes and no.
In some ways, the film works wonderfully, particularly Rich Heinrichs’ wildly inventive production design, which creates a slightly askew, semi-Gothic universe painted in infinite shades of gray. (Heinrichs is a frequent Tim Burton collaborator, which raises the obvious question: Why on earth isn’t Burton, whose name is automatically associated with the Edward Gorey-esque dark wit and Gothic style that “Lemony Snicket” trades in, directing this movie?)
The young actors playing the Baudelaires are perfectly cast, particularly wistful-eyed Emily Browning as Violet, the 14-year-old inventor. When we first see Violet in the film, her lips are pursed and her head is held high; you know that this child is a force to be reckoned with, and she doesn’t disappoint. Liam Aiken (strangely costumed in a plain pullover and trousers, while his sisters wear full Victorian Goth regalia) makes a fine sidekick as avid reader Klaus, and toddler twins Kara and Shelby Hoffman steal every scene as young Sunny, whose gurgles are creatively subtitled throughout.
Meryl Streep dithers delightfully as Aunt Josephine, who’s terribly afraid of just about everything (especially realtors), and Jude Law brings suave voice to the narrator. The problem, alas, is Jim Carrey as Count Olaf, the orphans’ villainous guardian. It takes a strong director heck, it probably takes a village to rein in Carrey’s over-the-top excesses, and Silberling appears to be no match. Costumed and styled as if to suggest John Malkovich caught in a wind tunnel, Carrey flutters and squeaks and prances and howls and generally wears out his welcome in a hurry. The Snicket books understand the power of subtlety; Carrey’s performance, unfortunately, does not.
Written by Robert Gordon (an earlier script by Snicket author Daniel Handler was reportedly scrapped), the film adds an unnecessary layer of sweetness to the story, seemingly not understanding that it was already there in the books, if you know how to read between the lines. The movie is imaginative and often enjoyable but doesn’t measure up to its source as well as, say, the Harry Potter series does. (And we can probably blame Potter for the fact that Klaus, bespectacled in the novels, has no glasses here.)
Then again, a world in which Jim Carrey and Meryl Streep gaze moonily into each other’s eyes and discuss grammar is not entirely a bad place to be.
Call the movie a pleasant near-miss, see it with your expectations lowered and by all means read the books again. I intend to, on another dark and rainy night sometime soon.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org