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Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events

(2004) *** Pg
107 min. Paramount Pictures. Directors: Brad Silberling, Brad Siberling. Cast: Jim Carrey, Meryl Streep, Jude Law, Liam Aiken, Emily Browning.

When Jim Carrey's Count Olaf sizes up the three perpetually out-of-focus orphans in his musty foyer, he purrs, "I must say, you're a gloomy-looking bunch." The Baudelaire children, it seems, have lost their beloved parents in a mysterious blaze and gained a destiny of rootless misery. The children are, in a larger sense, the offspring of Lemony Snicket, who—as the omniscient author of A Series of Unfortunate Events—informs his readers or, in this case, his viewers that it is his solemn duty to tell the Baudelaire's miserable tale. "The movie you are about to see is extremely unpleasant," he warns in Jude Law's voice-over narration. "I tried to warn you."

The oldest Baudelaire is Violet (young Aussie talent Emily Browning), whose habit of tying back her hair signals that she's cooking up another of her ingenious inventions. Her younger brother Klaus (Liam Aiken of Good Boy!) passionately devours books, and their unnervingly tranquil baby sister Sunny (played by Kara and Shelby Hoffman)...well, she's a biter. Naturally, each child's talent comes in handy once or twice in the course of the Baudelaire's cliffhanging (literally, at one point) adventures.

The kids' nemesis—the aforementioned Count Olaf—quickly reveals his sole interest: the Baudelaire family fortune. A preening but clearly grotesque actor, Olaf rolls "r"s and eyes as he vacillates between stentorian aggression and plummy-toned menace. Casting the actor as villain is a witty choice by Snicket (the alter ego of San Francisco-based author Daniel Handler); casting Carrey as the actor is a stroke of genius on the part of the filmmakers, led by director Brad Silberling (Moonlight Mile) on the glorious fools' errands that lead to so many unfortunate events.

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events loosely configures the first three Snicket volumes (The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, and The Wide Window) into a three-act vaudeville of heroes, villains, and narrow scrapes. Screenwriter Robert Gordon plays up the stories' "we got each other" undercoat, and reorders the books' events to place the first volume's climax at picture's end. The changes (including a more physically active heroism for Klaus) play fine, though Gordon could have been yet freer in his adaptation to spackle the skeletal plots of the compact books. Happily, Silberling's movie has speed, but predictably, it lacks rhythm.

Silberling's innovation of a bait-and-switch opening sequence (complete with Thomas Newman tune "Loverly Spring") provides delightful counterpoint to the more characteristic Gorey-esque animation of the film's end(less) credit roll. The director replaced dropout Barry Sonnenfeld, whose Addams Family films Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events most closely resembles. A sprawling cast of familiar faces inhabits this "overcast" world. As the children's more benign surrogate parents, Billy Connolly's Montgomery Montgomery (a reptile enthusiast) and Meryl Streep's jittery Aunt Josephine (who fears everything) display the nimble, funny commitment of the best kid's movie performers.

Timothy Spall, Catherine O'Hara, and Cedric the Entertainer turn up in substantial roles; many more flit by in cameos, including one actor who approaches Streep's stature. The overstatement of the adults complements the understatement of the kids, great reactors all (who knew, when a glum Aiken sat through last year's Oscars—in the care of playdate parents Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon—that he was only rehearsing?), but the show belongs to Carrey, who's either at the best or worst of his take-it-or-leave-it excess, depending on the viewer. Certainly, his comic viruosity gets a workout in two disguises adopted by the overconfident Olaf.

If Snicket's acid wit is a tad diluted, the film still pays homage to his style, peppering the narration with a few of his trademark definition asides, staying true to his mortal punchlines, and drawing attention to his sicker touches (shocking child endangerment and precocious references to the meaning of "Pasta Puttanesca"). Gordon even attempts to one-up Snicket by making Sunny's subtitled subtext saucier; when she's not gurgling an implicit threat to Olaf's genitals, she's babbling "Bite me!" The visual invention—all Hollywood—conjures some nice touches: Victorian-gone-wild costumes designed for Carrey by Colleen Atwood, an intimidating car with six dash-mounted rear-view mirrors, a rickety home braced non-commitally over the ominous Lake Lachrimose. Gloom and doom are, happily, the orders of the day.

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