This could have been a nearly great film. Instead, it went the exact path I feared it might, becoming too much of a vehicle for Jim Carrey at his most virulent.
As an adaptation of the first three A Series of Unfortunate Events books by Lemony Snicket (aka Daniel Handler), the film is a clever cinematic translation. Screenwriter Robert Gordon can now be forgiven for having penned Men in Black II, if only for the ingenious way he balances two tasks: recreating the Snicket series and melding them into a viable narrative.
Gordon’s greatest inspiration was to split the first book so that it bookends the movie. In that way, the most effective climactic sequence in the books becomes a satisfying end to the film — or at least it almost does. As evidenced by the trailer, one of the more fanciful aspects of that ending was apparently shot but changed before the film’s release.
In addition, Gordon cleverly incorporates elements from later books into the fabric of this opening story. And when he departs from the novels altogether, he plays with viewers who’ve read the books by setting up the source material, only to veer in another direction. In that regard, the film becomes one the cleverest adaptations I’ve ever seen, being at once faithful and surprising.
As anyone familiar with the books knows, this is the story of the Baudelaire children — Violet (Emily Browning, Ghost Ship), Klaus (Liam Aiken, Road to Perdition) and Sunny (Kara and Shelby Hoffman, TV’s General Hospital) — who are orphaned by a mysterious fire. They are sent to live with their “nearest” relative, Count Olaf (Carrey), a creepy, down-at-the-heels ham actor, whose only interest is the family fortune.
A barometer of the sense of humor involved — and the two levels on which the books work — lies in the characters’ names. The family name is an allusion to the French poet, while the names of two of the children, Klaus and Sunny, are drawn from the real-life Klaus and Sunny von Bulow. (It’s an apt choice, since the von Bulow’s story of a suspected murder attempt for an inheritance was filmed as Reversal of Fortune). Similarly, the story’s definition of “nearest relative” — the family member in the closest proximity — points up the film’s quirky and rather adult humor.
A great deal of what works about the books lies in the writing style, which in this case means the tone of voice of the narrator, Lemony Snicket. The film manages to capture this voice, and on occasion playfully expand on it, by including Lemony Snicket (voiced by Jude Law) as a (sometimes onscreen) narrator. The movie’s other merits include: amazingly on-target performances by the three children (well, four, if you count the twins); clever turns from Timothy Spall (Topsy Turvy), Meryl Streep, Scottish comedian Billy Connolly and Cedric the Entertainer; beautiful production design by frequent Tim Burton collaborator Rick Heinrichs; and solid direction from the underrated Brad Silberling.
Given all that, you’d expect this film to be a marvelous interpretation of the books. But unfortunately, the Jim Carrey Factor kicks in: The actor isn’t bad, but he’s much broader than the character of Count Olaf as it was written. The perfect choice for the Count would have been Tim Curry, but box-office concerns necessitated a name with more drawing power than Curry’s. And while that’s understandable, if regrettable, all too often there’s just too much Jim Carrey showing through. Previously, he’s proved that he can stay in character with effective dramatic performances, most notably in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. But here, the temptation afforded by the cartoonish nature of the character to indulge in his more identifiable shtick was apparently too great.
As a result, the performance is only spottily effective, and in fact, the film is at its best when Carrey is offscreen. His role is not a disaster, but it makes for an uneven experience.
That said, there’s a lot to recommend this stylish and dark “children’s film.” Had it been made by the originally announced director, Barry Sonnenfeld, it would likely have been a bit more frenetic than the film Silberling delivered. Sonnenfeld, whose directorial career unfortunately peaked with his first film, The Addams Family, tends to be a little too much like a Tim Burton knock-off, and that would have been deadly for a film that already flirts with Burton territory. Silberling brings a different sensibility to the project, which, stylistically, more often resembles Robert Altman’s Popeye than a Burton film, and this change is almost certainly a plus. If only someone had managed to rein in Carrey … .
Still, this is far and away the most intelligent and entertaining family film this holiday season has to offer. Rated PG for thematic elements, scary situations and brief language.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke