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Dustin Putman

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

3 Stars

Directed by Brad Silberling
Cast: Emily Browning, Liam Aiken, Jim Carrey, Meryl Streep, Kara Hoffman, Shelby Hoffman, Timothy Spall, Billy Connolly, Cedric the Entertainer, Catherine O'Hara, Jennifer Coolidge, Jane Adams, Luis Guzman, Craig Ferguson, Jamie Harris, Jude Law.
2004 – 107 minutes
Rated: Rated PG (for thematic elements, scary situations, and mild language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, December 11, 2004.

If J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" novels are the modern day zenith of family-oriented literature, then Daniel Handler's "Lemony Snicket" series (at eleven books, to date) places just underneath, vastly successful but with decidedly more of a cult following. As dark as "Harry Potter" gets at times, "Lemony Snicket" has an even more sinister undercurrent running throughout; it's a Grimm's fairy tale for the 21st century.

Deriving elements from the first three books in the series—"The Bad Beginning," "The Reptile Room," and "The Wide Window"—"Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events" is a whimsical, wonderful horror show for the ages-8-and-up set. Sumptuously and faithfully directed by Brad Silberling (2002's "Moonlight Mile"), this big-screen adaptation deals with some questionable subject matter for a family film—murder, attempted murder, suicide, and child abuse—but does it in such a fantastical, purposefully embellished way that it never feels like it has crossed the line. The picture is a beautifully foreboding storybook sprung to life, mixing guffaw-inducing comedy, frightful fantasy, and resonating drama without missing a beat or becoming tonally confused.

Narrated to perfection by Lemony Snicket (Jude Law), who is penning a book about the tale, the story proper begins with the untimely deaths of the Baudelaire parents in a house fire. Their newly orphaned children—14-year-old scientist Violet (Emily Browning), book-loving 12-year-old Klaus (Liam Aiken), and infant biter Sunny (twins Kara and Shelby Hoffman)—are promptly sent to live with creepy distant relative Count Olaf (Jim Carrey). Almost immediately, the children recognize something is a bit off about Count Olaf, a suspicion proven when he intentionally locks them in a car across a train track in an attempt to kill them and get their inheritance. Once escaped, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny are sent to stay with their reptile-obsessed Uncle Monty (Billy Connolly) and, later, their terminally phobic Aunt Josephine (Meryl Streep) in a decrepit house hovering over a cliff. Every step of the way, the three put-upon children cannot get rid of the scheming Count Olaf, who is tracking them down via thinly-veiled disguises and bringing with him a series of unfortunate events.

Crisply written by Robert Gordon (2002's "Men in Black II"), "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events" is a delightfully twisted and wickedly funny entertainment, the kind of risk-taking family feature that, like 2004's brilliant "The Polar Express," understands that the best movies of its sort always come with an apprehensive undercurrent. Less sensitive children and grown-up alike take a certain pride in enduring scary things in cinema; it is an emotion that is fun, edgy, and cathartic all at once. Director Brad Silberling is wise to recognize this—his previous adult drama, "Moonlight Mile," also dealt with the subject of death in a bittersweet, honest, yet frequently humor-laden, way—and has transformed "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events" from what could have been overwhelmingly grisly into something more akin to a funhouse carnival ride. And, when Violet, Klaus, and Sunny reach the end of their perilous journey, they are left with a deeper respect for each other, a better understanding of the love their parents had for them, and a well-deserved chance at a good life.

The heart found around the edges of the story, sincere but never pat or maudlin, lifts the film above being all doom and gloom and to a more emotionally satisfying plane of existence. Save for Count Olaf, played to the delicious, threatening tilt by Jim Carrey (2004's "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"), the world of "Lemony Snicket" is populated by quirky, at times mad, characters, but no villains. Most of the people, from social worker Mr. Poe (Timothy Spall), to Uncle Monty, to Aunt Josephine, to the well-meaning detective (Cedric the Entertainer), to Count Olaf's kindly neighbor, Justice Strauss (Catherine O'Hara), want what is best for the kids but are often held back by their own personal flaws and hang-ups. It is the world itself, it seems, that is at odds with Violet, Klaus, and Sunny's happiness, and the danger surrounding them must be overcome in order to live a sort-of happily ever after.

Emily Browning (2003's "Darkness Falls") and Liam Aiken (2003's "Good Boy!") are unaffected and resilient as the eldest Baudelaire offspring, Violet and Klaus, each of them getting a chance to foil Count Olaf with their respective expertise in science and knowledge. Special mention should also go to the absolutely adorable performances gotten from Kara and Shelby Hoffman, infants whose indecipherable baby talk and priceless reaction shots are translated through often hilarious subtitles.

As the perpetually paranoid Aunt Josephine, who is scared of every object she comes across (i.e. "Don't trip on the rug. You could fall and decapitate yourself" and "Mind the chandelier. It could fall and impale you."), Meryl Streep (2004's "The Manchurian Candidate") sinks her teeth into a rare comedic performance and then goes one step further to transcend the offbeat role. The talents of other top-notch actors, including Catherine O'Hara (2004's "Surviving Christmas"), Jennifer Coolidge (2004's "A Cinderella Story"), Jane Adams (2002's "Orange County"), and Luis Guzman (2003's "Anger Management"), are sadly misused and almost of the blink-and-you'll-miss-them variety.

"Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events" is a cynical moviegoer's dream for those tired of frothy and syrupy-sweet family releases. Director Brad Silberling has fun with this aspect, his narrator of Lemony even going so far as to advising the audience at the beginning to leave the theater at once if all they want is cute and cuddly. The moody cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki (2003's "The Cat in the Hat"), with a penchant for indelible blacks, grays, and browns, and the fantasy-filled production design by Rick Heinrichs (2003's "Hulk"), bringing to life a whole new world of endless possibilities, are superlative.

If there is a reservation to be had, it is twofold: the film is so entertaining that its 107-minute running time feels rushed, causing some of the key plot developments, such as the purpose behind the small looking glasses the children link back to their parents' deaths, to be a little murky. Further expansion of the sticky events fallen upon the Baudelaire children could have aided in this relative slightness. Even with this being the case, however, "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events" does not fall apart under scrutiny. It is an imaginative, gorgeously woven achievement that avoids pandering to a certain demographic and ends up enchanting all ages.
© 2004 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman