December 29, 2004

Cold Snickets Still Satisfies

This is the story of the three Baudelaire children. Violet loved to invent; her brother, Klaus, loved to read; and their sister, Sunny... she loved to bite.

by JEREMIAH LEWIS, American Digest Film Editor

PG 2.5 stars out of 5

Lemony Snickets' A Series of Unfortunate Events is (besides the world's most complicated title for a kid's movie,) a weird, unwieldy trip into the fantastic. And strange as the movie is, it is actually quite tame compared to the antics of Jim Carrey, playing three characters in very convincing makeup.

Carrey has returned to his roots as a physical comic, yet the roles are darkthink Cable Guy meets The Grinch, with a twist of Dickinsean wicked spirit for added punch. His work gives the movie some firmness, but not enough to save the disconnected and directionless plot.

The story is compiled from the first three books of the series by Daniel Handler. With Jude Law (as Lemony Snickets) narrating in silhouette, the story begins by introducing the Baudelaire children: Violet (Emily Browning), a precocious fourteen year old girl whose gift of invention is marked by her tying up her hair; Klaus (Liam Aiken), a voracious reader of books and test subject for Violet's inventions; Sunny, the baby who bites everything in sight and whose gurgles and giggles are translated into amusing subtitles. They are a privileged lot, living in a mansion with mommy and daddy in London proper.

Disaster strikes one day. They are told that their house has burned to the ground, killing their parents. They are pushed through the "System" and finally land at the house of their nearest relative, the corrupt and theatrical Count Olaf (Carrey), who is only after their immense inheritance. His plan is to end the children's lives in what looks like an accidental and unfortunate event. The children's quick thinking saves them, however, and the court moves them to their Uncle Montgomery Montgomery (Billy Connelly), an obsessive herpatologist (reptile lover), yet genuinely warm and friendly man.

Their time with him is cut short, however, when Olaf returns in disguise as a fellow herpatologist. Montgomery winds up dead, and the children are sent to live with Aunt Josephine (Meryl Streep), a practically omniphobic eccentric whose shanty is built precariously on the edge of a cliff. Olaf again returns, this time as an old sea salt named Captain Sham, who seduces Josephine and takes her to her house alone. The children return to find a suicide note with strange grammatical mistakes. Klaus deciphers the note, from Josephine, who has hidden in a cave. There the children learn that there is a family secret, and that someone has been killing off the Baudelaire family by burning down their houses.

The final scene, wherein Olaf, discovering he would not inherit any money if the children are killed, decides instead to marry Violet in a theatre production. By using an actual Justice of the Peace (Catherine O'Hara), Olaf's marriage would be legally binding, and thus he can get his hands on the inheritance. To ensure that Violet will go through with the scheme, he puts Sunny in a cage at the top of a tower, and threatens to have her dropped if Violet tries anything.

Suddenly, Dustin Hoffman arrives for a ten second cameo in which he says and does nothing of import. Then its back to the movie.

The fate of the children and their inheritance is in the hands of Klaus, who must think like Violet to find a way to save Sunny, and prevent the marriage from happening. In doing so, he also discovers the mechanism by which Olaf has been setting firesa gigantic lens set in the tower.

Up to this point, the plot has been somewhat messy, but manageable. However the distinct lack of emotional connection from scene to scene is a detriment. It seems, in gathering the material from the three books, director Brad Silberling has connected some dots for the plot's sake, but has forgotten to include the emotional punch that would have made the story into something really special. Instead, we are left with a series of unwieldy plot developments in which an audience can never really be emotionally invested.

This is a shame, because the visuals and acting are all top-notch. The children are wonderfully expressive, excelling in their portrayal of orphans unfairly shuttled about by a cold and unsympathetic system, while the supporting cast is equally impressive as the strange Baudelaire relatives and caretakers of the Baudelaire estate. Carrey, who seems to do comic roles now only if disguised by lots of makeup, is both funny and genuinely twisteda nightmare relative of mendacity and manipulation, who kills with glee and without remorsetruly, he is one of the darker characters to grace the screen this year.

Visually, this is a sumptious production, dark and twisted, with lots of eye candy for both adults and children. Most of the sets seem to be built upon the mere hope that they will not fall apart, though the Baudelaire mansion, which we see in a flashback, and Montgomery's reptile house are both a beautifully rendered Victorian-age architect's dream. Costumes seem to be amalgams cobbled from eighteenth and early twentieth century London.

For lovers of pure cinematic production, there is much here to love. However, fans of the books and good storytelling, will be more disappointed than pleased with this rather cold compilation of events in the Baudelaire children's lives. This visually beautiful movie is proof that stringing plot points together does not an emotionally binding story make.

Jeremiah Lewis of Fringe reviews films both at his site and American Digest. Lewis can be reached directly at Posted by Vanderleun at December 29, 2004 6:48 PM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

That should be "Sunny", not "Maggie", as you have in the body of the review. Strangely, it's correct in the caption for the photo.

Posted by: Sherman at December 30, 2004 12:23 PM

Correct and corrected. Thanks.

Posted by: Gerard Van der Leun at December 30, 2004 12:32 PM