This much can be said for the movie version of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events: Its villain, Count Olaf, just might be Jim Carrey’s finest screen role. A bitter, would-be master thespian who delights in donning ridiculous disguises and adopting funny accents, he doesn’t seem far removed from what Carrey might be like had he not hit cinematic paydirt.
The rest of the movie, however, isn’t quite up to Carrey’s level — which is a shame, because most of the ingredients are present. Production designer Rick Heinrichs has a history with both Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam, and it shows. The cast is laden with talent, including Meryl Streep, Billy Connolly, Timothy Spall and Catherine O’Hara. The source books — written by Daniel Handler under the satirical, ersatz-Edgar Allan Poe persona of Lemony Snicket — feature mordant humor in the tradition of Roald Dahl and Edward Gorey. Screenwriter Robert Gordon penned the spot-on sci-fi satire Galaxy Quest, so no questioning his credentials here.
There are two obvious weak links. Most immediately apparent is the onscreen appearance of Snicket himself, embodied by James Henderson and voiced by Jude Law. Law simply isn’t right; he sounds way too reassuring and kind, even as he tells us what a sinister and unpleasant film we’re in for. Vincent Price would have been ideal, but because he’s dead, someone like Christopher Lee should have been called.
Worse than the selection of Law is the choice of director. Brad Silberling’s girlfriend was murdered in 1989, and he has spent his feature directorial career channeling that experience into his art (Casper, City of Angels, Moonlight Mile). Silberling wants to reassure us that everything’s all right, that life can go on after losing a loved one, but what’s required here is the sort of demented S.O.B. who can laugh at people falling to their deaths. Tim Burton was otherwise occupied, but executive producer Barry Sonnenfeld would have been perfect — his Addams Family movies nailed the tone that Silberling doesn’t seem capable of properly understanding.
A prime example of this lack of cojones is the movie’s opening sequence, a fake-out intro to a Rankin-Bass-type production called The Littlest Elf. Everyone in the audience knows that a wicked punch line is coming — when one of the happy cartoon elves is seen holding a hunter’s rifle, we expect something twisted. Instead, there’s a clap of thunder, and things go dark. That’s all. Cut to Lemony Snicket sitting at a typewriter. Oooh, scary.
For the sake of those who don’t have children and haven’t set foot in a bookstore recently, the Series of Unfortunate Events books begin with the orphaning of three siblings: science whiz Violet Baudelaire (Emily Browning, acceptable), bookworm Klaus Baudelaire (Liam Aiken, miscast or misdirected) and bite-happy baby Sunny (Kara and Shelby Hoffman, with amusingly subtitled baby talk). Initially sent to live with demented Count Olaf, who covets their immense family fortune, the trio of kids is shunted in each book to the home of a new relative, where Olaf inevitably shows up in disguise, ruins everything, kills the relative and has his plan thwarted only to escape and show up again in the following book. The first three books have been incorporated into the film, with a couple of events from later books added by screenwriter Gordon.
Plenty about the movie does work: the entire sequence featuring Meryl Streep as Aunt Josephine, a grammar-obsessed, agoraphobic widow who lives in a house on stilts teetering over a cliff above a lake full of deadly leeches; the use of M.C. Escher artwork for the carpet pattern in the Reptile Room; and the cartoon that plays over the end credits (easily the best thing in the film).
Carrey is magnificent. It’s his show all the way. If he can get a director who measures up for the inevitable sequel, we could have ourselves something a long way from unfortunate indeed.