The grim reader
Lemony Snicket’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events
Director Brad Silberling, in a recent Premiere magazine article, described his film adaptation of the first three of 11 books in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events as a collision between The Wizard of Oz or Mary Poppins and The Night of the Hunter (the 1955 parable in which a preacher with “LOVE” and “HATE” tattooed on his knuckles stalks two children for access to money hidden in a doll). This is a rather jolting and cautionary description for a PG-rated family film, but it certainly is appropriate when one considers that the film’s source material reads like a Brothers Grimm folk tale as edited by gonzo journalist-prankster Hunter S. Thompson.
“Most smart people tend to feel queasy when the conversation turns to things like ‘certain death’ and ‘total failure’ and the idea of a doomed generation,’” says the notorious Thompson in the liner note to his book Generation of Swine. “But not me. I am comfortable with these themes.” And so, apparently, is Snicket (the pen name of Daniel Handler).
The author begins his series with the reportage of the death of parents by fire and then litters the future of their three orphans with such potholes as a greed-driven guardian, deception, enslavement, a giant snake, carnivorous leeches, a hurricane, murder and child abuse. The film is an intriguing, eye-popping, irreverent, darkly comic, wondrous adventure. It’s full of sinister and perilous elements that Silberling and company splash onto the screen with exhilarating vision and verve. One may argue that A Series of Unfortunate Events has no emotional depth, but it is that very objectivity that allows us to traverse such a hazardous minefield and return to our daily lives touched but unbroken.
The film is both fantastic and flawed. It messes with the audience’s mind from its very first frames and turns the end credits into an amazing bookend. The author himself (the voice and silhouette of the prolific Jude Law) warns of the unfortunate events that lie ahead (best go elsewhere for a happy ending, he tells us). And he resurfaces intermittently in an episodic story that incorporates parts of books one through three (The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room and The Wide Window), and then drifts back into book one for an ending that trumpets not only the strength of a united family but also the arrival of a new franchise.
Snicket quickly introduces us to the three “clever and reasonably attractive” Baudelaire siblings. Fourteen-year-old Violet (Emily Browning) is an inventor. Her younger brother, Klaus (Liam Aiken), is a bookworm with a photographic memory. And baby Sunny (played alternately by twins Kara and Shelby Hoffman) likes to bite things. They combine their talents and take turns bailing their mini-clan out of possibly fatal scrapes. Bumbling executor Mr. Poe (Timothy Spall) then appears and bluntly notifies the children of their parents’ demise. He takes the kids to live with their geographically close but genetically distant relative Count Olaf (Jim Carrey), who spends the rest of the film attempting to swindle the orphans out of their inheritance and lording over a motley acting troupe.
The film, shot entirely on soundstages, is a surefire Oscar contender for multiple technical achievements. The set and costume designs are a timeless orgy of Victorian, Gothic and modern influences. The cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki (Like Water for Chocolate and Sleepy Hollow) submerges us in a sort of parallel universe that brings to mind the illusionary magic of a Tim Burton production. The film is effectively dreary and claustrophobic, and takes frequent and deep panoramic breaths.
The kids in the picture are excellent, even though the subtitled shrieks and gurgles of Sunny are not always as funny as they want to be. Meryl Streep is hilarious as the skittish, paranoid Aunt Josephine, who inadvertently provides a link to solving the mystery of Mr. and Mrs. Baudelaire’s deaths. I can take Carrey in small doses, but here he devours too much of the scenery (a tactic his fans may relish) with his mugging and wild body movements. Unfortunately, Cedric the Entertainer is miscast in the role of the detective.
A Series of Unfortunate Events says that every family has a secret, that everything happens for a reason and that there sometimes exists a slight difference between real and irrational fears in the fantasy world. It explains to the youngsters in the crowd that the world is filled with people who start fires and people who put them out. The film includes one incident of violence (when Olaf slaps Klaus) that has a jarring ring of reality. But, overall, this is the story of a family that uses its ingenuity to find salvation and sanctuary in a life that seems to be irreversibly crumbling around it—which is no small feat.