Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events
Paramount Home Entertainment
Starring Jim Carrey, Emily Browning, Liam Aiken,
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Review by M.E. Russell
Less than a third of the way into Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004), Mr. Snicket himself (Jude Law) brings the story to a halt with one of his patented asides, telling us, "This is an excellent opportunity to walk out of the theater where this movie is being shown."
It pains me pains me to report that this is not entirely bad advice. Unfortunate Events ends up being one of those heartbreaking movies that gets off to a promising start but never quite creaks to life, despite everyone's obvious best efforts.
In terms of raw filmmaking materiel, all the elements for success were there. Director Brad Silberling (Casper, Moonlight Mile) is adapting some great source books the first three installments of the hilariously nasty series of children's novellas by Daniel Handler. The movie looks terrific, in that Tim-Burton-Gothic-lite sort of way that suggests the labors of a small battalion of clove-puffing set designers. The performers are well-chosen and obviously giving their all. And the producers enjoy a couple of inspired casting coups including Meryl Streep as a neurotic aunt and Jim Carrey as a ham-actor villain named "Count Olaf."
So how does a movie this carefully crafted leave a theater (and, now, a home theater) simmering at low temperature?
It comes down to a handful of crucial flaws. First, Silberling never quite figures out a single approach, deadpan or wacky, that honors the material. Second, A Series of Unfortunate Events betrays the cackling, grim spirit of the books with some ill-placed moments of (gasp!) heart-warmth and happiness. (For all its faux morbidity, the film carries the stench of clean living, as if it were directed by too polite a fellow.) And finally, Carrey and Streep (but particularly Carrey) give performances that are sort of busy and unfocused with Carrey engaging in clowning that seems at odds with the rest of the picture.
This is unhappy news. The 11 published Unfortunate Events books are much-loved because, in many ways, Handler is the legitimate heir to Roald Dahl: He doesn't talk down to his young readers, he's funny, and he understands that great children's stories can survive heaping dollops of dark humor. (For examples of what I'm talking about, see Dahl's own James and the Giant Peach, Fantastic Mr. Fox, huge swaths of Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, &tc.)
Each book, which Handler pseudonymously credits to "Lemony Snicket," follows the travails of the three "reasonably attractive orphans" of the Baudelaire family inventor Violet (played in the film by Emily Browning), bookworm Klaus (Liam Aiken) and baby Sunny as they're pursued by Olaf, a distant cousin and failed actor who tries to kill the children for their inheritance.
The movie adapts the first three books in the series The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room and The Wide Window and therein lies another problem. Adapting three mini-adventures instead of one gives the film a deeply unsatisfying episodic structure; it feels like we're watching very expensive episodes of "Scooby-Doo" back-to-back.
Even worse, comedy that seemed sharp and deadpan on the page is played for broader laughs onscreen. The result, perversely, is a certain low-energy weariness late in the movie. Baby Sunny's facial expressions and gibberish, funny by themselves, are "enhanced" by unfunny subtitles containing wisecracks like "She's the mayor of crazy town!" Carrey and his makeup team do an amazing job replicating Brett Helquist's line drawings of Olaf Carrey just nails that arched eyebrow that makes one eye seem larger than the other but then he piles on contemporary references and too much Ace Ventura schtick, and the movie loses its sense of character and the timelessness (and, it must be said, the merciless cliffhanger ending) that could have made it truly great.
Make no mistake: There's a lot to love here, particularly in the first reel. Browning's a real find, and there's a magnificently staged escape from a collapsing cliffside house. But the filmmakers, despite all their labor, fail to heed the lesson of Barry Sonnenfeld's Addams Family movies: Sometimes trying a little less hard to be "funny" can yield greater laughs when you're playing with the lightly macabre.
* * *
Paramount has packaged A Series of Unfortunate Events in a two-disc edition that's so dense, only the hardest-core fan could possibly forage through all its featurettes and galleries and commentaries and Easter eggs. (Even the main menu on the first platter is beautifully designed: Its immaculate animation changes every time you click the eye in the center.)
Disc One contains an anamorphic widescreen version of the film (1.85:1), plus two commentary tracks. The first yack-track features an earnest dissertation on the making of the film by director Brad Silberling, who sounds like nothing so much as a DJ at a classical-music station as he genially and intelligently blathers on about his hopes and designs including his ambition to get "some of that subversiveness" from the books into the movie. ("Some"?) To his credit, he cops to the "interesting story problem" of adapting three highly episodic books in one lump.
The second track features Silberling talking with "the real Lemony Snicket" author Daniel Handler, one presumes and it's kind of a mess. As with the Buckaroo Banzai disc from a few years back, Silberling and "Snicket" are pretending that their movie is a sort of docudrama of real-world events. Handler pretends to be outraged and indignant for pretty much the entire commentary essentially saying that Silberling has kidnapped him and forced him to watch a wretched, depressing film, an artistic crime for which Silberling should roundly apologize. Needless to say, this all gets a bit long in the tooth, and when Silberling says words like "ass," you start to wonder: Who is this commentary for? (It also gets actively uncomfortable toward the end, when Handler demands that Silberling apologize for the depressing tone of "Moonlight Mile," which film buffs may recall is a semi-autobiographical account of Silberling's own grief process following his girlfriend's murder.)
There are also a number of supplements under Disc One's "Special Features" menu. Under a "Bad Beginnings" sub-menu, we find four featurettes:
- "Building a Bad Actor" (12:46) features behind-the-scenes footage of Carrey creating his character in the makeup room. Silberling narrates, and it's actually pretty interesting to see how he wrangled Carrey's wide-ranging improvisational instincts into a performance of relative coherence. The test footage in which Silberling quizzes Carrey and the actor reels off answers in his various disguises is fascinating, and more of this sort of footage pops up throughout the featurettes, suggesting that there's a cutting-room floor somewhere littered with piles of unused schtick.
- "Making the Baudelaire Children Miserable" (3:05) features some Silberling narration wrapped around a screen-test trailer he made of Emily Browning and Liam Aiken glowering.
- "Interactive Olaf" "presents highlights from Jim Carrey's extensive makeup and wardrobe tests in a four-way split screen." This extra comes with a mildly bewildering set of instructions: "On the next screen, select which audio track to listen to. You can also switch the audio as you watch by navigating to the pane you'd like to hear and pressing ENTER." Basically, it boils down to this: All four screen tests play at once, and you can isolate the audio for each of them during this extra's 9-minute running time. It's neat and disorienting, and the collage presentation completely undermines Carrey's jokes.
There's also a collection of "Orphaned Scenes," subdivided into 11 "Dismal Deletions" (14 mins. of deleted scenes) and five "Obnoxious Outtakes"(another 14 mins. of crack-ups, babies nodding off, Carrey spinning off on vaguely off-color tangents, and more).
There's also an Easter egg under the "Orphaned Scenes" menu: Click on the star under Olaf's right hand to watch "Count Olaf's Ghastly Ghost Story" a 5-minute improvised tale of horror about three children menaced by a murderer, filmed as one of Carrey's makeup tests.
Disc Two presents a veritable thicket of alliteratively and/or ironically titled featurettes. Under a menu titled "A Terrible Tragedy: Alarming Evidence from the Making of the Film," you'll find the following:
- "A Woeful World" spends a whopping 54 minutes (with split screens galore) on the film's insanely detailed, witty and timeless production and set design though one has to wonder how much kids will linger on an extra that talks at some length about the design of car dashboards. It's either a data dump or en embarrassment of riches, depending on your worldview, and it has the effect of making you wish the movie was a little better.
- "Costumes and Other Suspicious Disguises" spends 17 mins. on exactly what you'd expect it to;
- "Violet's Functional Designs" spends 11 mins. on the creation of our heroine's Rube Goldbergian contraptions, and it lingers for a surprising amount of time on the design, storyboarding, and shooting of a deleted scene involving a device designed to retrieve stones skipped across the water;
- "CAUTION! Incredibly Deadly Vipers" (9 mins.) is all about the wrangling of Reptile Room critters. If you've ever wanted to watch a tortoise eat a banana, this is the extra for you;
- And "The Sad Score" (14 mins.) is devoted to Thomas Newman's music which, despite being Oscar-nominated, I found almost unforgivably synth-y and tinkly and quiet and generally sub-Elfman during the end credits. (I'm sure I'm not giving this one a fair shake Newman is part of a revered family dynasty of film composers that includes Thomas Newman but that's how it felt.) Features a man urgently telling his collegues, "In bar 42, the second beat is two G-sharps."
And under the "Volume. Frequency. Decibels" menu?
- "The Unsound Sound Designer," which spends over 30 minutes on the minutae of the film's sound design breaking, if I'm not mistaken, the length record set by any Star Wars DVD featurette devoted to Ben Burtt. That said, it features a lot of amusing footage of the sound team literally destroying a house to get the sound effects they're looking for;
- And finally, there's "You Probably Shouldn't Listen to These" a multi-track feature that allows you to (a) isolate the crunches and crashes recorded by seven different microphones as the sound crew drops a tree on the aforementioned house, and (b) isolate the sound effects in the sequence where the children are nearly splattered by a train.
Under the "Sinister Special Effects" menu, you'll find:
- "An Alarming Conspiracy Involving Sunny" (6 mins.) concerns the creation of the creepily lifelike and supremely unnerving robot replica of baby Sunny, used in several shots throughout the film;
- "An Even More Alarming Conspiracy Involving Sunny" (20 mins.) takes a little side-trip into the Uncanny Valley as we focus on Sunny's remarkable computer-generated manqué;
- "The Terrible Fire" (6 mins.) describes the creation of a wonderful motion-control shot in which a mansion interior dissolves, Titanic-style, into charred ruins as the camera cranes around the children;
- "Trains, Leeches & Hurricanes" (9 mins.) talks about the neat trick of putting a digital train on a forced-perspective set, among other things, and it's all just one big Cinefex article;
- And there's another Easter egg here: Click on the sworl on the far right in the "Effects" menu to watch "Very Finicky Director" in which Silberling discusses an abandoned teaser-trailer concept that sounds absolutely grim and hilarious and perfect. Of course the studio shot it down.
Finally, under the "Gruesome Galleries" menu, you'll find photos and renderings and designs grouped as "Shadowy Stills," "A Woeful World," and "Costumes and Other Suspicious Disguises," and it suddenly occurs to me that book illustrator Brett Helquist hasn't gotten nearly enough love throughout these two discs. I wonder if he cares?
- Anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1)
- Two single-sided, dual-layered discs
- Dolby Digital Surround in English 5.1, French 5.1, and Spanish 5.1
- English subtitles
- Commentary with director Brad Silberling
- Commentary with Silberling and "the real Lemony Snicket," Daniel Handler
- Featurette: "Building a Bad Actor"
- Featurette: "Making the Baudelaire Children Miserable"
- "Interactive Olaf" multi-track feature
- 11 deleted scenes
- Featurette: "A Woeful World"
- Featurette: "Costumes and Other Suspicious Disguises"
- Featurette: "Violet's Functional Designs"
- Featurette: "CAUTION! Incredibly Deadly Vipers"
- Featurette: "The Sad Score"
- Featurette: "The Unsound Sound Designer"
- "You Probably Shouldn't Listen to These" multi-track feature
- Featurette: "An Alarming Conspiracy Involving Sunny"
- Featurette: "An Even More Alarming Conspiracy Involving Sunny"
- Featurette: "The Terrible Fire"
- Featurette: "Trains, Leeches & Hurricanes"
- Three still galleries
- Easter eggs: "Count Olaf's Ghastly Ghost Story" and "Very Finicky Director"
- Dual-DVD slimline keep-case
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