Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events

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Many children’s books are made into movies because kids demand more of their favorite characters; books like these are written largely for the parents, so should the movie be. The twee charm of the Lemony Snicket Series of Unfortunate Events is a difficult one to describe to one who has not read them. To try and evoke their unique tone for film is comparable to writing a bagpipe concerto of the books of Edward Gorey: it probably can be done, but it would take a careful hand to do the original works justice.

For fans, there is a lot here – the film glosses over and embellishes on the first three books in the Series, relying somewhat heavily on fans’ love of the ancillary characters. If you don’t already have a handle on (a phrase which here means “a working knowledge based on actual reading and not a screenwriter’s shorthand”) the various guardians and Olaf’s troupe of actor flunkies, you won’t come away with any real thoughts about them except “why did they cast all those amazing people and then not use them?” Watching this movie, with all these talented indie darlings in bit parts, one wonders what was cut from this film?

Independent film and/or Christopher Guest movie mavens will recognize the massive cast of supporting cameos (Catherine O’Hara, Jennifer Coolidge, Jane Adams, Luis Guzman, Jane Lynch, Timothy Spall, Deborah Theaker). A few kids will recognize the prodigal Liam Aiken from Good Boy!, and I am certain a bunch of producers are prepping their filofaxes for the number of breakout Emily Browning (Violet). Sunny (as played by twins Kara and Shelby Hoffman) stole the show, in a surprising un-precious way, a testament to director Brad Silberling’s sensitivity to the material.

The Series is set in a wonderful No-Time world, which adds to its sense of magic and wonder. Linguistically, the film is solidly in the present, but visually the look is anytime in the past 100 years, which I feel is what the author intended. Fans will love the tiny clues and foreshadowing of future books and possibly freak out at a few changes (though I think they are justified). Casting Billy Connolly and Meryl Streep as Uncle Monty and Aunt Josephine was inspired, a word which here means “the most satisfying possible choice giving the selection of living actors.”

You may be asking, “What of Jim Carrey?” Ah yes, Jim, my true love. Casting a physical chameleon in a role like Count Olaf is not just a Grinchian box office move but a necessity. Olaf must be in disguise and be funny (a word here which means “pass for an innocent person”) and also be dark and scary to match the books. What seems to have happened here (as well as with Sunny’s diluted dialogue, a phrase which here means “simplified for the masses, losing many smart jokes in the process”) is that too many studio honchos were nervous about this film. A holiday movie based on dark, unusual books written primarily for smart kids with weird titles, a love of language, developing mystery and no happy endings? It’s a miracle this movie got made at all. It’s enough to put even the Weinsteins off their dinner. Cast Jim Carrey, problem solved.

Jim, despite playing a ruthless and flamboyant actor with selfish malevolence as his only note, is, ironically, a little hobbled by this role as written. The studio wants a lovable villain who won’t terrify the tots and whom parents can appreciate. But Olaf is evil, gross, vile, truly awful, but screenwriter Robert Gordon (Galaxy Quest) wrote him merely as twitchy and capricious, a phrase here which means “prone to Jim Carrey-like outbursts of gentle villainy but not really all that menacing.”

By all means, let that not stop any fan of the books from going – the visuals are so, so beautiful and the references to later books exciting. Carrey does what he does best and he gives it his all – I never meant to imply otherwise; but Olaf is emasculated here (see: “twitchy and capricious”). It’s as if they worried the film would fail and so they made it as if it would be the only one. For non-fans, there are 11 books so far, this film was but three of them.

I delighted in every clue, every flourish, every anachronism (nonachronism, more like). The acting is solid and the events are truly unfortunate, as promised. It benefits from a big screen viewing even as it skips over some of the meat of the stories. Having the author narrate (in Jude Law’s distinctive voice) helps maintain some of the tone of the books, but I say fans, see it on the big screen and watch out for VFD. And the floor of the reptile room, oh my god! Check it out.

Blurb: More than adequate, a phrase which here means “delightful to fans but will win them no new ones after emasculating Count Olaf.”

MPAA Rating PG
Release date 12/17/04
Time in minutes 113
Director Brad Silberling
Studio Paramount