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LEMONY SNICKET’S A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS (PG) (2004)

Nickelodeon Movies, Paramount Pictures, DreamWorks SKG, Scott Rudin Productions

Official Site

Director: Brad Silberling

Producers: Laurie MacDonald, Walter F. Parkes

Written by: Robert Gordon; from the books by Daniel Handler

Cast: Jim Carrey, Meryl Streep, Jude Law, Emily Browning, Liam Aiken, Kara Hoffman, Shelby Hoffman

Rating:


Everything will be okay. No… really… good and family values trump evil every time. Don’t be scared. This movie is only kidding. Just please go see the movie. They spent a lot of money on it, a whole lot of money, reportedly 142 million dollars. Plus, it has Jim Carrey! You love him, right? Baudelaire was just some poet and Edgar Allen Poe is harmless enough. All that stuff is for you people who read. This film will play in red states just as well as blue.

You will hear it described as being “great for the family, though the ‘darkness’ may not be appropriate for younger children.” Balderdash! which in this case means that you better not let those kids watch anything worse than the animated version of A Christmas Carol, either. On second thought, that might be a bit much, too. Really! There isn’t anything in this film that would disturb even the most timid young child. On third thought, there are those graphic and realistic man-eating leeches. I must admit that they could be the source of a nightmare or two. Maybe I shouldn’t go overboard just to make a point.

I should be glad that Lemony Snicket’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events, the movie, is not an abomination, and it isn’t. Now, I may not have slept in a coffin like some people I know, but I love the macabre as much almost anyone. I am especially fond of the commentary implicit in the morbid, dark arts that there are different ways of looking at reality than the single, most popular consensus. That would seem to be an especially valuable message for today’s youth, but may not be much of a message that they will get from this film. Seemingly dark and morbid, and a bit frightening to small children, it is no Edward Scissorhands. Okay, so now you know where I stand.

Lemony Snicket’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events is a film based on the exceptionally popular series of morbid books by Daniel Handler, specifically the first three. As you might surmise, the books are short and succinct, and the producers and screenwriter Robert Gordon intelligently tried to preserve that quality rather than trying to excessively embellish a single book into a single movie. The books are quite cleverly written, with charming literary devices that the filmmakers have taken every care to preserve or translate to film. Books are books and films are films. I don’t believe in comparing a film to the book that inspired it because it so rarely leads to any illuminating insight. However, you don’t spend 142 million dollars on a bold experiments in filmmaking; you invest it in proven commodities. If I found commodities entertaining, I’d be a stockbroker.

At first, I was inclined to take my daughter’s diagnosis and blame Jim Carrey for everything wrong with this film. She is my local expert on the books, and the only thing that she found horrifying is how they cast the villain, Count Olaf, as a comic character. She hated the film before she entered the theater and saw nothing to alter her opinion. To be honest, she admired everything else about the film, but just could not stand Carrey. I suspect that a significant number of the hard-core fans of the literary series will have the same reaction. After some considerable deliberation, I don’t feel that this judgment is fair. Carrey provided exactly what was expected of him.

Admittedly no actor of the dramatic quality of someone like Meryl Streep, who also happens to appear in this film, Carrey succeeds in bringing some small realistic and rewarding presence to his extremely melodramatic character, much more than she does for hers. In fact, the only truly “good” acting in this film comes from the children (Browning and Aiken), who portray their characters with a skill beyond their scant experience. Of course, the best, most convincing acting comes from the Hoffman twins who portray the youngest child. Since they largely don’t even speak yet, I can safely say that they don’t even know the meaning of the word “melodrama.” Perhaps that is why their subtitled comments, a common and embarrassing gimmick in some other movies, here are some of the most sincerely funny and meaningful moments of the film. I’m undoubtedly an idiot for taking so long to figure it out, but all this is not a coincidence. The world of adults has no more validity to a child than what their imagination can give it. Suddenly, even the most ardent fan of Tim Burton has to smile about the insight of this aspect of the direction.

Sadly, a child’s imagination also just has to be able to envision a more terrifying and threatening and ultimately interesting world than what is depicted here. I know that mine would. By obsessing over the stylistic and melodramatic details of the book, this film generally forgets to be really morbid. Here you can insert your own arguments as to whether people care about such substance anymore. I may be clueless about a great many things, but I’m not going to expect a studio to spend 142 million dollars and then make a film that alienates people by serving my arcane notion of morbidity. They are going to go out of their way not to alienate anybody, not even a little bit. Paramount didn’t ruin Michael O’Donoghue’s Scrooged without reason.

Even so, the studios are scared to death that people are going to skip this film because of its dark nature. At the press screening, we received a copy of a New York Times article recounting a discussion between the director, Brad Silberling, and a child psychologist, Alvin Rosenfeld, as they celebrate the virtues of presenting children with some of the more challenging and scary aspects of life, as opposed to an exclusively sugar-coated and overly protective vision. Not only is this morbid terror all in good fun, it is actually healthy! I’d agree, if only here it didn’t taste so much like some pop health food.

—Steven Harding

hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

Take a pal and pay full price for both tickets.

Itís worth a full-price ticket.

Itís worth a matinee ticket.

Wait for video rental.

Check out the video from the library, if you must.

While we would never encourage anyone to destroy a video...


Mike Doughty



none now
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