[box cover]

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events

Paramount Home Entertainment

Starring Jim Carrey, Emily Browning, Liam Aiken,
Meryl Streep, Timothy Spall, Billy Connolly,
Luis Guzmán, Cedric the Entertainer, Dustin Hoffman,
and Catherine O'Hara

Written by Robert Gordon
Directed by Brad Silberling

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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:

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:

And under the "Volume. Frequency. Decibels" menu?

Under the "Sinister Special Effects" menu, you'll find:

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?

M.E. Russell

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