Monday, December 27, 2004

Review: "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events" (2004)

The first Edward Gorey book I ever read was called "The Gashleycrumb Tinies". It contained 26 illustrations of 26 child deaths; one for each letter of the alphabet ("M is for Maud who was swept out to sea. N is for Neville who died of ennui"). Though some of his other works are more obtuse, this particular book is a perfect embodiment of Gorey's black humor. Author Daniel Handler decided to combine the style of Gorey with a Harry Potter-type popular novel and this resulted in the successful "Lemony Snicket" series. There was little question as to whether or not Handler's characters would eventually join the boy wizard on the silver screen. The real question would be if the transfer would work just as well.

"Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events" introduces us to the Baudelaire children: Violet the inventor (Emily Browning), Klaus the reader (Liam Aiken) and infant Sunny the biter (Kara & Shelby Hoffman). They learn from the family banker Mr. Poe (Timothy Spall) that their parents have died in a mysterious fire. They are soon ushered into the care of distant relative Count Olaf (Jim Carrey), an eccentric actor who has designs on the Baudelaire inheritance. The children's stay with him is brief before they are whisked off to other relatives, but Olaf is not easily deterred. With the help of his acting troop, he follows them and makes more attempts at their lives and the lives of others in pursuit of the fortune.

The thing I remember about Jim Carrey's years on "In Living Color" is that a little Carrey goes a long way. In films like "The Truman Show", he plays it straight and can be taken for the length of an entire film. Otherwise, his shtick best left to the small bites of sketch comedy. Obviously, my opinion is not shared by a lot of people if the box office of the "Ace Ventura" films are to be believed. I can also see how the flamboyance and improvisation of the actor Olaf would suit Carrey's talents. Yet his additional role as villain within the darker tones of the film is hampered by his constant yammering. The children come to dread his next appearance because of his murderous nature. The audience comes to dread his next appearance because we know that the camera will be glued to his mug for minutes at a time while he does his thing.

The overall failure of the film is not completely Carrey's fault. The story for this film is taken from not one book but portions of the first three in the series. However, even without ever having read the books myself, I got the impression of a cobbled-together story while watching it awkwardly unfold. The producers didn't have the advantage of J.K. Rowling's "One book/One Hogwarts' Year" template and had to piece together a plot from a larger story that has yet to completely play out in print form. The film's fractured nature, added to Carrey's atmosphere-killing antics, make the film less enjoyable than it could have been.

A long list of supporting roles in this film are played by recognizable faces that are given absolutely nothing to do. This includes Luis Guzman, Jennifer Coolidge, Cedric the Entertainer and the friggin' AFLAC duck (Gilbert Gottfried). Then there's Dustin Hoffman. One review of the film I have read says that Hoffman plays a theater critic that gets big laughs for his few lines. First of all, if he was a theater critic, then there wasn't much indication of that. Second of all, I could barely hear what he said on the two incredibly brief times he was on screen, much less laugh at it. It's made me consider creating a blog post on pointless cameos and putting him at the top of it.

There are pluses to the film. The child actors that are cast are not overly familiar faces. Instead, the filmmakers opted for attractive and interesting looking child actors who can manage the heavy material. In particular, Emily Browning seems very suited for the role of Violet as her face suggests an Edward Gorey character come to life. The mood and ambiance in the various story locations are perfect and something that Tim Burton would be proud of. Oddly enough, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and production designer Rick Heinrichs are both veterans of Burton's "Sleepy Hollow", another great achievement in dark atmosphere.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the happy ending. When you base a film on a series of books with "Unfortunate Events" in the title, you would think they would leave well enough alone. Particularly since the series is now eleven books long and the Baudelaire children have far from seen their last unfortunate event. But happy the ending must be, and it leads me to wonder how much more they plan on chopping up the source material to produce any sequels. I imagine the books' fans get chills at the thought.

If you find yourself buying a ticket to this film, then the best advice I can give is to stay for the credits. It is an extended animated segment that I believe was once intended for the beginning of the film. It also has that Gorey feel to it in spades. Best of all, Olaf is mercifully reduced to a menacing silhouette creeping in from the edges; the only visible detail of which is a symbolic eye. Such subtlety is best left to the animation, I suppose, because Carrey certainly doesn't know the meaning of the word in this film.

Six out of Ten

No comments: