The obvious goal behind “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events” is to inaugurate a movie franchise that will do for Paramount what the “Harry Potter” series did for Warner Brothers. But that’s a dream that, on the basis of this initial effort, is unlikely to be realized. The picture is visually quite wonderful, presenting a Dickensian world of mixed charm and gloom that’s continually striking and delightful to savor. It also has moments when the books’ humorously creepy, slightly morbid attitude is nicely captured, particularly in an imaginative opening that effectively cinematizes the tone through the periodic authorial observations that Jude Law (less overexposed here than in his numerous other recent flicks, especially since he’s kept in shadow) delivers in the guise of Lemony himself. But over the course of two hours the slowness of the film and its repetitive, episodic quality take their toll. Even worse, the attachment of Jim Carrey to the project–while perfectly understandable from a merchandising perspective–has the unhappy effect of turning the movie into a chain of sketches in which the heavily-made up star does his usual shtick, grotesquely mugging and taking too much attention away from the youngsters who should be at the center of affairs. The vaudeville nature of his turns–which remind one of nothing more than his old “In Living Color” bits–eliminates any sense of real menace from the story, something that’s essential to the success of a modernized Grimm fairy tale like this (and something that the “Potter” films–especially the superior third entry–took care to retain). As a result the movie, for all the eye candy on display, becomes a series of increasingly unfortunate events in a way that Snicket never intended.
Though the movie is based on the first three books in the ongoing series, it actually falls into four parts. In the first, the Baudelaire children–inventor Violet (Emily Browning), avid reader Klaus (Liam Aiken) and obsessively biting baby Sunny (twins Kara and Shelby Hoffman)–are orphaned as a result of a suspicious fire that burns down their mansion and kills their parents, and are carted off by clueless executor Mr. Poe (Timothy Spall) to their (physically) nearest relative, an ostentatiously affected and unsympathetic would-be actor named Count Olaf (Carrey). The count’s plan is to secure the orphans’ inheritance by bumping them off as quickly as possible, in the meantime forcing them to perform all the household chores in his shabbily elegant house like a trio of unlucky Cinderellas. He’s foiled, however, by the intricacies of both law and Violet’s inventions (as well as by the children’s courageous support of one another), and in the second act they’re removed from his dubious care and placed with Uncle Monty (Billy Connolly), a kindly, gregarious herpetologist who plans to take them all to South America for their protection. Unfortunately, before they can depart Olaf shows up in the guise of an Italian assistant–one of the running gags is that the children always recognize him, but adults never do–and before long Monty has met his end, though the count can’t use the matter to his own profit because, in the third episode, the orphans are instead turned over to Aunt Josephine (Meryl Steep), a terminally nervous sort who lives in a house tottering on the edge of a cliff overseeing a lake named Lachrymose. Once again Olaf makes an appearance, this time playing a one-legged sea captain who romances Josephine to get rid of her and regain custody of the kids. There follow a couple of strong set-pieces–a wild house-collapse, followed by an eerie voyage across the lake–that result in the childrens’ return to Olaf’s none-too-avuncular custody. The final segment of the narrative has him plotting to marry young Violet to secure her fortune, in a ceremony that will be real though performed as though it were just a scene in a play. Here Klaus must save the day, in the process revealing to the still-uncomprehending adults the scheming count’s villainy. Though there’s a sort-of summing-up at the end, plenty of loose ends are left dangling (among them Olaf’s whereabouts and the secret behind a spyglass Klaus inherits from his father)–matters that are presumably taken up in later volumes of the series (and, the producers undoubtedly hope, sequels to the movie).
“Unfortunate Events” starts out nicely, with the production design team head by Rick Heinrichs and the art direction crew led by John Dexter fashioning a stunning world in which the landscapes look vaguely threatening and the structures almost surreal; and it’s all captured beautifully in the atmospheric lensing of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. The introduction by Law adds to the humorously spooky mood, and the grave, somber air in the performances by Aiken and Browning seems quite right. (Meanwhile, the cheerier Hoffman twins add a touch of easygoing charm, with the habit of translating her gurgling asides in subtitle form getting some good laughs, as does the story’s emphasis on her toothsomeness.) When Carrey enters the picture, however, one can almost feel the character of the movie change; the effect is not unlike what Robin Williams did to Robert Altman’s “Popeye,” although the result isn’t quite as destructive in this instance because Olaf disappears for awhile, allowing the warmer, more accessible Connolly to take over temporarily. Yet Carrey’s later intrusions are no more successful, and surprisingly Streep doesn’t manage much beyond a one-note timorousness, either. (Even duller is a cameo by Dustin Hoffman as a critic in the concluding play sequence; he seems to phone things in.) As the plot proceeds, moreover, the seriousness and rather grim determination of the children become a mite tiresome, too; Sunny is shunted off to the side in the later reels (she even has to play the baby-in-distress in the final scene), and though Aiken is very occasionally permitted to crack his amusingly crooked smile and Browning shows signs of perkiness from time to time, they’re generally compelled to stick to their glum attitudes, not unlike little Christina Ricci’s in “The Addams Family”–and eventually the humorous impact of their precocious maturity pales, and their failure to engage with the audience on a deeper level undermines our interest in their fate. Neither Spall nor Catherine O’Hara, as a judge who officiates unknowingly at a real wedding, lives up to their potential in smaller roles.
What we’re left with in “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events,” then, is a visual feast that nonetheless leaves one feeling hungry for some emotional nourishment after the succession of all-too-similar courses has passed. In the end it’s not even as satisfying as that other Jim Carrey make-up vehicle, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” which at least kept him in a single costume throughout: the melancholy fact–as Lemony Snicket might say–is that in terms of multiple character parts, Carrey is no Alec Guinness or Peter Sellers. (He’s supposed to be a bad actor who fails in all his roles, but that doesn’t make watching him any more enjoyable.) As a result the most unfortunate thing about the series of events depicted here is that they lose their attractiveness as they progress. If in further installment the spotlight were returned to the children, where it belongs, the effect might be more positive.