Three of Daniel Handler’s Gothic tales about three siblings on the run from a ruthless and greedy relative are given the Hollywood treatment in Brad Silberling’s Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. Not surprisingly, the $100m+ film boasts first-rate production values, with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s lenses perfectly capturing (and enhancing) the eerie Gothic-ness of production designer Rick Heinrichs’ preternatural creations.
On the other hand, as befits most Hollywood fare, Silberling’s direction and the film’s screenplay (credited to Robert Gordon) take a mechanical approach to Handler’s stories, getting many of the unfortunate events right while obliterating whatever magic and wit that could be found in the original work. (Handler’s screenplay adaptation of his stories was reportedly discarded once director Silberling came onboard.)
Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events begins after a house fire kills the wealthy parents of the three Baudelaire children: the bookworm Klaus (Liam Aiken), the inventive Violet (Emily Browning), and the toddler Sunny (Kara Hoffman and Shelby Hoffman). A stupid judge grants guardianship rights to Count Olaf (Jim Carrey), a distant relative who sports a combination of bad hair, bad teeth, and bad manners. The kids sense that the Count is no good, but a family friend, Mr. Poe (Timothy Spall), is too idiotic to realize the obvious and leaves the children in the care of the evil Count.
At first, Count Olaf treats the children like slaves. He then realizes that they would be better off dead – at least as far as he is concerned. With the kids out of the way, Olaf would inherit the Baudelaires’ money. After a failed attempt at the kids’ life, Olaf loses custody of the children. Even so, he will not let the trio just run away with their fortune.
Thus, the Count comes up with different disguises in an attempt to bump off the three obnoxious children who are keeping him from becoming rich. The kids recognize him right away, but imbecile adults like the snake specialist Uncle Monty (Billy Connolly) and the realtor-phobic Aunt Josephine (a disgracefully wasted Meryl Streep) don’t. The price of not listening to children can be deadly. Or perhaps just deadly dull.
Snickery Jim Carrey, hardly the subtlest of actors, plays the villainous Count Olaf as if Lemony Snicket’s were his own private one-man show. The story suffers as a result, but that surely is of little concern to the filmmakers. When you are producing a film with a nine-figure budget, what matters are a big box office name and groovy special effects that will fill in seats at movie houses.
Thus, the beautifully-packaged but heartless, soulless Lemony Snicket’s plods along for nearly two hours, as each unfortunate – and interminable – event is followed by another.
LEMONY SNICKET’S A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS (2004). Dir.: Brad Silberling. Scr.: Robert Gordon; from Daniel Handler’s books The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, and The Wide Window. Cast: Jim Carrey, Meryl Streep, Liam Aiken, Emily Browning, Jude Law, Timothy Spall, Catherine O’Hara, Billy Connolly, Dustin Hoffman, Craig Ferguson, Luis Guzmán, Jennifer Coolidge, Jaimie Harris.