A film review by Craig J. Koban

LEMONY SNICKET'S A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS j
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2004, PG-13, 97 mins.

Count Olaf: Jim Carrey / Violet Baudelaire: Emily Browning / Klaus Baudelaire: Liam Aiken / Aunt Josephine: Meryl Streep / Lemony Snicket: Jude Law / Sunny: Kara and Shelby Hoffman / Mr. Poe: Timothy Spall / Justice Strauss: Catherine O'Hara / Uncle Monty: Billy Connolly

Directed by Brad Siberling /  
Written by Robert Gordon /  Based the the books by Daniel Handler

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events Double-sided poster

Perhaps next to satires, I think that black comedies are the hardest of genres to pull off successfully.  Oftentimes, a black comedy's doom and gloom with its inherently dark material can have the effect of raising the hilarity to all sorts of perverse and macabre heights (the Coen Brothers, for example, are masters of this).  In all fairness, the genius of black comedy is that it finds laughs in subject matter that most people would otherwise find inappropriate or crude. 

The best black comedies are incredible morose and grotesque (I remember one enormously vile, yet painfully and ironically funny moment in FARGO where the killer is trying to dispose of a dead body in the least convenient manner).   The genre prides itself on using devices associated with tragedy and farce and often exaggerates situations and characters broadly beyond any normal and real delineations.  They are insensitive, they are cruel, and they are morally incongruous. 

It is by the very definitions of what encapsulates black comedies that makes me feel that LEMONY SNICKET’S A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS is a film that ultimately left a really bad taste in my mouth.  I am willing to put my tongue in my check and laugh at the most contemptible and depraved of film images.  For example - when John Travolta accidentally discharges a bullet into a passenger’s head in PULP FICTION (“You must have hit a bump or sumthin’!”) or, even more grossly exaggerated, when Slim Pickens literally rides an A-bomb down to its intended target, subsequently murdering millions of people and starting a nuclear holocaust - I  laugh at these moments, maybe because the characters involved are equally lacking in morale fiber. 

Yet, when I bare witness to the series of unfortunate events in LEMONY SNICKET, the comedic taste is kind of bland and awkward.  Maybe because it involves a devilish man who murdered a mother and father and, consequently, tries to murder their three young children (one a baby) in order to inherent their money.  I don’t know, when black comedies involve hitmen, killers, or crooked politicians I am willing to invest in it.  When it involves schemes that relate to the direct murder of children in the cruelest manner possible, I guess I kind of tune out.  Realistically, is there anything funny about a child murderer? 

I think that is precisely why LEMONY SNICKET fails to deliver.  It’s really difficult for me to laugh at the proceedings when, realistically, I find no real ways to emotionally invest in it.  The film is an awkwardly cobbled together work based on three of the enormously famous children’s books by author Daniel Handler (those three in question are The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, and The Wide Window).  The result is a film that feels vaguely and arbitrarily pieced together, a narrative that seems in desperate search for an overall plot or story arc.  The makers of the HARRY POTTER film series - despite my problems with those films -  at least knew that, with a franchise that spans several books, its probably wise to make one film out of one book and move on, sequels permitting.  LEMONY SNICKET feels like a rushed assemble job, resulting in what many may feel is a fast-paced and exciting story, but it is one that feels episodic and meandering at best.  Not to mention the fact that, with all due respect, I just did not find its proceedings all that entertaining.  When evil and despicable people are the victims of black comedies, it’s kind of cathartically refreshing.  When the victims are innocent children and babies, I just don’t find any chuckles in that. 

The film does open on a wonderfully droll and sly note.  The credits fade in and we see an innocuous little animated montage that looks like the film is going to be about a “happy little elf”.  Then, rather abruptly, the film freezes and the narrator Lemony Snicket (Jude Law) can be heard in voice over and politely explains to the viewers that this film, in fact, is not going to be about happy elves, so that if you want to see “that” film, go to the other cinema.  The film that is about to be shown, he elaborates, will be extremely unpleasant.  People will die, terrible things will happen, a mischievous villain will plot dastardly things, and three children will be abused and mistreated.  He pleads that all those who wish not to partake in the rest of the film should leave and leave right now.  Okay, I will give the film points for at least warning the viewers about its subject as it is, at its core, repulsive.  Bad things happen, wicked plots are unleashed, and children are abused and nearly tortured.  Yes, good, wholesome family entertainment if I’ve ever heard of it.

The rest of the story is told in a sort of weird, semi-reflective narrative as we see Snicket bent over a typewriter and hatching out the story that will be the film itself.  He tells us the story of three Baudelaire children who very suddenly and decisively become orphans when their parents have died.  How did they die?  It seems that their mansion was destroyed in a hellish fire and they were, unfortunately, burnt alive.  That is only the very beginning of the terrible and sinister events of the film, which sort of darkly foreshadows the future. 

The children themselves take the news of the parent’s death with more ease and restraint than any children in the history of cinema when faced with similar consequences.  Their detachment from their parent's deaths is kind of off-putting, in a way.  They don’t cry, they don’t really talk about it and they really express any remorse in any concrete way.  The children, 14-year-old Violet (Emily Browning), her younger brother Klaus (Liam Aitkin) and their baby sister Sunny (twins Kara and Shelby Hoffman) seem universally and strangely accepting of the news of their parents demise.  

Maybe they deal with the news better because they posses talents and maturity beyond their years.  Violet is a remarkably adept inventor, often during the least pleasant times (her and MacGyver would get along famously) and Klaus apparently has a photographic memory when it comes to the written word.  Sunny’s skills seem rudimentary and impractical at best.  Firstly, she has super strong teeth that can actually allow her to bite on to the end of a table and dangle from it.  Secondly, and in much more annoying fashion, she can communicate to the children in baby talk, which is translated in would-be funny subtitles.  The first string of subtitles are funny, the next few seem forced, the latter ones feel tired and desperate in some sort of cheap manner to pepper the film with comedy.  Near the midway point of the film, these subtitles become comic deadzones during which I had to force myself to even smile.  

These three remarkably gifted children are then beset with a series of life-threatening problems.  The family banker, the horribly inept and stupid Mr. Poe (Timothy Spall) then takes the children to live with their only close relative – Count Olaf, played in another virtuoso over-the-top performance by Jim Carrey.  Olaf may not be the most legally linked relative to the children (“I am a fourth cousin three times removed, or perhaps some other way around,” he explains).  Olaf’s resemblance to a certain blood sucking vampire of a famous German silent film is not a coincidence, not to mention his home, which is a creaky, grungy, dark, and depressing Gothic mansion that is desperately in need of the help of people of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.  When the children first meet Olaf, memories of the original Bela Lugosi DRACULA come to mind, but Lugosi’s vampire might feel restrained compared to the depraved nature of Olaf. 

Olaf sees the children’s arrival as a minor miracle.  At first, he sees them as extremely cost effective slave labor and makes them do all sorts of chores around his home under conditions that would make any social worker have a heart attack.  But when he realizes that he will never get their inheritance until they die, he concocts a series of dreadful schemes that would bring about their immediate deaths, and he does so in the most viscous and least subtle manner possible.  His first attempt involves him parking his DeSota on a train track while locking the children inside.  The children begin screaming while Carrey mugs the camera with a series of expressions that are meant to make us laugh at his insanity when they only inspire contempt.  Of course, since there are eleven books in the series, the kids do survive, and they do so in manner that reeks with implausibilities. 

Mr. Poe wisely takes the kids to their next guardian, the nice Uncle Monty (Billy Connolly), a herpetologist who has, as pets, a series of pythons, reptiles, and all sorts of creatures that are not meant to be with children.  He seems like a perfect guardian when compared to Olaf.  Yet, Olaf shows up in a disguise as an Italian, in an inspired comic character by Carrey.  As funny as he is, it’s amazing that the kids are able to spot an imposter in Olaf when the seemingly smart Monty is not.  The children are then taken to Aunt Josephine (the misused Meryl Streep) who lives in a Victorian mansion that teeters over a cliff.  Josephine is, quite frankly, afraid of everything, and I mean everything.  It soon becomes apparent that she too will not make a good guardian and the story plods along from one incident to the next and culminates in a somewhat sick and sleazy move on Olaf’s part to attempt to finally secure his fortune.  Let’s just say that, in the movie’s world, Violet has reached the legal age of consent. 

LEMONY SNICKET is not a joyous, fun, or even remotely uplifting film to watch and is especially not even in the great tradition of other great family entertainments like THE POLAR EXPRESS or the HARRY POTTER SERIES  (the latter whose success this film is trying ride in on).  POTTER and EXPRESS where successful family films that had dark elements that did not completely eclipse their overwhelming sense of imagination, wit, humor, and fun.  LEMONY SNICKET kind of falls flat because the whole film is just so dreadfully unsettling without a glimmer of much hope.  

The film is so all encompassing in its darkness and murkiness that it’s hard to be taken in by it.   It also kind of suffers from cinematic multiple personality disorder; it wants us to laugh at Olaf at the expense of his intolerable treatment of the children.  As inspired as Carrey’s performance is, it’s ironically the best and worst thing in the film.  He’s boisterous, theatrical, and works realty hard to make us laugh at him, but there is one terrible moment when he strikes one of the children, after which I kind of found the subsequent portrayal of his character sort of shameless.  It’s kind of reprehensible that he tries to make a child abuser the comic relief in the film when the other supporting characters could have fulfilled that role.  Playing the role straight might have been less repulsive.

LEMONY SNICKET’S A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS is one of those films in which you leave so disappointed.  The film looks sensational (director Brad Siberling has created a very unique looking universe and the films recent Oscar nominations in technical categories are much deserved).  The film is not a failure on a purely cosmetics level, just on an execution one.   It’s a visual feast for the eyes to be sure, but it narratively just plods around from one scene to the next and lacks in any level of suspense whatsoever (you never really feel that the children will, in fact, die, so any dramatic tension is void).  Notwithstanding that, but the decisive misgivings I have with this film is with its overtly dark edges that I could not find much humor in.  Carrey’s repetitive clowning around does not make for a really hateful villain, which is all the more sick when you consider that he soul mission in life is to kill three blameless children.  When miserable cynicism and  contemptible nihilism tries to pass itself off as family entertainment, then I guess I just lose my level of willingness to invest.

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