Now available on video and DVD, Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events is wonderfully unlike anything you're likely to have seen recently. On the face of it - and at the opening - a "children's story," it quickly becomes like something out of Tim Burton's dark bag of tricks. Part comedy, part nightmare, part showoff piece for Jim Carrey - who is on screen much of the time in different guises - it will likely please perceptive adults rather more than their offspring, who may take the whole thing a bit more seriously than is intended.
Screenwriter Robert Gordon has collapsed three of the books in the popular series together, and both he and director Brad Silberling appear to have approached the whole project as a vehicle for Carrey's special breed of eccentric genius. His Count Olaf is the villain of the piece, a ham actor run amok, lusting after the wealth which the life theatrical has (quite justly) denied him. The head of a ragtag, faintly gothic troupe, "Count" Olaf lives in a decrepit mansion and exists in something like a parallel dimension, a separate reality like that of children's fables everywhere. Carrey is absolutely mesmerizing in the role, which lets him mug, preen, strut, and bounce off the other actors endlessly.
In short, the part is made to order for him, and he's in peak form. Credit cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and production designer Rick Henrichs for creating the skewed environment for Olaf and his strange crew, a time warp where the 19th and 20th centuries uneasily coexist. Additionally, costume designer Colleen Atwood and a raft of makeup folk deserve mention, and Thomas Newman's music and the special effects wizardry of Industrial Light and Magic diligently serve the story. The movie is a visual treat, one which will doubtless receive serious consideration in several technical categories.
Like some of the characters, the plot is straight out of Dickens. Three children, the Baudelaires, having been orphaned and left homeless by a fire of mysterious origins, are left in the clutches of their distant cousin Olaf, who aspires to gaining the fabulous Baudelaire fortune - by any means, especially murder. The muddled banker responsible for the children's welfare (actually underplayed by Timothy Spall) keep shifting them around to various other potential guardians, including one a benign herpetologist, "Uncle" Montgomery "Monty" Montgomery (Billy Connolly) and a dithery paranoid "Aunt" Josephine, who dwells on the gloomy shore of Lake Lachrymose in a cantilevered house that defies gravity and architectural reality. The latter, played by Meryl Streep, has some truly marvelous moments with Olaf, in disguise as Captain Sham, an old sea dog clearly inspired by Popeye.
Against the Count's skullduggery the kids must pit the inventive genius of older sister Violet (Emily Browning), the book learning of brother Klaus (Liam Aiken), and the unexpected lucidity of their prodigious baby sister, Sonny (played by identical twins Kaira and Shelby Hoffman). Since only her siblings can interpret Sonny's messages, we adults have to rely on subtitles, which are a constant hoot.
It wouldn't do at all to let on much of what happens, other than to say it ends with a moral totally appropriate for children to absorb and adults to remember, one dealing with courage, loyalty, and love. Other than people over thirty, I think the ideal audience for this "PG" rated movie is about ten.
The tone is pretty dark, there are some "scary situations" as the poster warns us, and the little girl behind me at the theater opined as the credits rolled that it was a bit long. (Speaking of credits, this is one of the very few films I've seen where most of the audience stayed for them!) Narrator Jude Law (as Lemony Snicket) informs us early on that this is no ordinary kids' movie, and he's dead right: it's much, much better.